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History of Sweatshops

What is a Sweatshop

A sweatshop is more than just a metaphor for a lousy job. Although there is no clear, single definition of the term, it generally refers to a workplace where relatively unskilled employees work long hours for substandard pay in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.

The term "sweatshop" was first used in the late 19th century to describe aspects of the tailoring trade, but sweatshop conditions exist in other industries as well. The forces that promote sweatshop production have always been varied. Some shops are the result of greed and opportunism; others stem from competitive pressures.

Understanding why sweatshops persist today means exploring issues of global competition, government regulation, immigration, business practices, and racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination.

History of Sweatshops

Sweatshop by George Biddle

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Design for mural at U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., around 1935 Courtesy National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

The term "sweatshop" was first used in the late 19th century to describe aspects of the tailoring trade, but sweatshop conditions exist in other industries as well. The forces that promote sweatshop production have always been varied. Some shops are the result of greed and opportunism; others stem from competitive pressures.

"Sweater: employer who underpays and overworks his employees, especially a contractor for piecework in the tailoring trade." - Standard Dictionary of the English Language, 1895

"Sweatshop: A usually small manufacturing establishment employing workers under unfair and unsanitary conditions." - Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1993

"A business that regularly violates both safety or health and wage or child labor laws." - U.S. General Accounting Office, 1988

"In this era of concern for civility, decency, and family values, sweatshops are repugnant to our moral core. It is wrong to value fashion when we do not value the people who make fashion real. . . . Sweatshops reflect too vividly how we as a nation feel about the weakest among us. And it is such an 'underground' problem that there is no definitive source on how many sweatshops operate in this country. But we know this: One is one too many." - Alexis M. Herman, U.S. Secretary of Labor, 1997