Is it Getting Better?

A Watershed Event

A collection of headlines about the resurgence of sweatshops in the 1990s

We will continue to use every tool in our arsenal to end the exploitation of garment workers”— Robert Reich, U.S. Secretary of Labor, 1995

The discovery of the El Monte sweatshop shocked the nation. What many consumers thought took place only in other countries was happening at home.

The El Monte sweatshop, like the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster, has become a powerful symbol in American history. Although many sweatshops have been raided in recent years, El Monte has been used as a media event by U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich; Victoria L. Bradshaw, State Labor Commissioner, California Department of Industrial Relations; and others to galvanize the American public into action. Some industry representatives suggested the situation has been blown out of proportion. Others wondered whether it was just the tip of the iceberg.

Is It Getting Better?

When we began working on this exhibition, we expected to be able to answer this simple question. We assumed that we could determine how much clothing sweatshops produced and how many people they employed. We were wrong. There are no simple answers.

Depending on their source, estimates of the number of garment sweatshops in the United States vary greatly. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that out of 22,000 U.S. garment shops, at least half were in serious violation of wage and safety laws. No one knows for sure.

Some historical trends are evident. For garment workers, it is clear that working conditions were oppressive in the 1910s, had improved by the 1950s, but worsened in the 1980s. For consumers, prices have steadily dropped.

The current interest in sweatshops is encouraging. We hope that through greater public awareness of a complex industry and cooperation among business, labor, government, and consumers, solutions will be found.

Peter Liebhold & Harry Rubenstein Exhibition Curators

National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution