The Sweatshop Debate #1: What Is A Sweatshop?

Merriam Webster offers this simple, concise definition: a shop or factory in which employees work for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions.

It’s a good starting point, but it’s loose enough that there are still plenty of questions. What do long hours, low wages and unhealthy conditions mean? Are there other factors? Is there a ‘one-size-fits-all’ definition for a sweatshop?

What makes a sweatshop, a sweatshop? 

Low Wages 

We’ll dedicate a detailed post to sweatshop wages but to gain an initial understanding, here are some numbers we found:

  • Los Angeles

Los Angeles is one of the country’s most important textile and garment hubs which is why we’re focusing on the city and not the US as a whole. According to an Al Jazeera article, garment workers can earn as little as 1.90USD – 5USD per hour, at a time when the minimum wage in California was  9USD an hour.

  • Bangladesh

Bangladesh fares badly in setting minimum wage standards for the garment industry. Reports vary, but we’ve found numbers to suggest 30USD to 60USD a month.

  • India

Again, numbers vary. We have found sources which suggest wages can go as low as 0.30USD per hour.

Photo Credit: rijans

Unhealthy Conditions 

Unhealthy conditions cover a wide range of infractions that can cause pose serious risk to the health and comfort – both mental and physical – of workers.

Building collapses and fires have occasionally dominated the headlines. But there are also reports of abuse by managers and lack of compensation for sick days, among others.

What we see in the news is the result of safety policies that are systematically not enforced  by factory owners; that is, we only see them when the dam finally breaks. It’s easy to forget the harsh working conditions on a daily basis, only reminded of them when a tragic incident occurs.

Long Hours 

The problem here is that many professions require long hours and so by themselves, they are not a human rights violation. However in sweatshops, there are additional factors which make long hours a problem.

Workers often work 6 or 7 days a week, sometimes 14-16 hours a day. They don’t get overtime nor are there mandatory days-off.

Photo Credit: Solidarity Center

What else should we consider?

Children. Child labour is an endemic problem in many countries, notably India and Pakistan. It is estimated that there are 170 million children engaged in child labour which includes those employed in the textile and garment industry.

Child labour merits a closer look, together and apart from the larger sweatshop debate,  something we will be studying in coming posts.


No, there is no one size-fits-all definition of a sweatshop. But different labour bodies and organisations have set up some parameters:

According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is any factory that violates more than one of the fundamental US labor laws.

The Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), the US garment workers union, says any factory that does not respect workers’ right to organize an independent union is a sweatshop. 

To wrap-up… 

This is a very early sketch of what a sweatshop means and what it could look like. In our next The Sweatshop Debate post, we will look more closely at sweatshop workers and who they are – the demographics, the backgrounds and how social and economic shape their lives.




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