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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820-1998

Sweatshops in America

Barbed-wire fence surrounding the El Monte sweatshop Phillip Bonner, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1995.

On August 2, 1995, police officers raided a fenced compound of seven apartments in El Monte, California. They arrested eight operators of a clandestine garment sweatshop and freed 72 illegal Thai immigrants who had been forced to sew in virtual captivity.

Although the El Monte incident was an extreme case of exploitation, sweatshops are not new to America. Since the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, many generations of Americans have toiled in sweatshops. Then, as now, their labor has been accompanied by widespread debate over what constitutes a fair wage, reasonable working conditions, and society's responsibility for meeting those standards. This exhibition places the current debate on sweatshops in the garment industry in a historical context and explores the complex factors that contribute to their existence today.