Sweatshops 1940-1997

History of American Sweatshops: 1940-1997

The Resurgence of Sweatshops

Despite Life magazine’s declaration of victory in 1938, sweatshop production came out of hibernation in the late 1960s. A combination of forces at home and abroad contributed to their reappearance: changes in the retail industry, a growing global economy, increased reliance on contracting, and a large pool of immigrant workers in the United States.

Public, government, and media concern remains focused on problems in the apparel industry, although, as in the past, sweatshops continue to be found in a variety of industries.

Knit-goods sweatshop, Queens, New York, 1997

The New Sweatshop Worker

Immigrants continue to power the U.S. apparel industry and the volatile women’s fashion sector in particular. Like their predecessors, many new arrivals find their first jobs assembling clothing. As they gain English language skills and improve their education and training, they leave for better jobs and are replaced by more recent immigrants.

As in earlier times, current American sweatshop workers tend to be immigrants (legal and undocumented) seeking economic opportunity and political freedom. Desperate for work and primarily women, these workers become easy prey for unscrupulous employers.

In the 1950s, the composition of New York’s apparel work force began to change. Highly restrictive immigration quota laws enacted in the 1920s had cut off the flow of cheap labor from Eastern and Southern Europe, forcing the industry to look elsewhere for workers.

As Italian and Eastern-European Jewish garment workers got better jobs or retired, they were replaced by Puerto Ricans and African Americans. Due to union gains, government regulations, and industry changes, these new workers did not experience the same level of exploitation as their predecessors.

Puerto Rican Garment Workers, 1953

African American Workers Ironing Garments

Courtesy Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University

In the 1950s, the character of the New York garment workforce began to shift from Italian and Jewish to Puerto Rican and African American. But many of these new workers did not stay in the apparel industry very long.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty (1963–68) had a major impact on the racial and ethnic composition of the workforce. Increasingly many individuals found fewer racial barriers to higher-paying manufacturing and white-collar jobs. Rather than falling victim to laboring in apparel sweatshops, some workers turned to alternatives in the service industries or even public assistance. By 1970 New York City’s total welfare allowance was 30 per cent higher than minimum wage.

Button, Equal Rights in '63

Button, March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom.

Button, Johnson 1964 Campaign, "All the Way with LBJ"

In the 1960s my shop was mainly black and Puerto Rican, with a sprinkling of older Jews and Italians. Then one day I woke up and I found that I didn’t have any more people from Puerto Rico. The only remaining black is my cutter. And the rest of my workers come from the Dominican Republic, with a bunch from Ecuador, El Salvador, and Chile.” — Unidentified New York City contractor, around 1981

New Immigrants—New Sweatshops

Chinese garment workers, Chinatown, New York City, about 1983

Courtesy of Photographer Harvey Wang

Mexican garment workers, Brooklyn, New York, 1989

Courtesy of Photographer Dani Steele

International and national political upheavals spurred new waves of immigration in the late 1960s and early 1970s. New arrivals included Asians from China, Korea, and throughout Southeast Asia, and Latinos from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Central and South America.

Operator’s chair typical of those found in most sewing establishments, about 1990

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Hunched over their sewing machines for eight to twelve hours a day, many garment workers suffer from a variety of physical ailments. Workers often bring in their own cushions to lessen the discomfort of sitting on cheap sewing-machine chairs.

Time magazine cover on El Salvador

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Political and economic instability in Latin America drove many people to the United States. The federal government also stimulated this migration with policies like the Bracero Program (1941–64), which encouraged Mexicans to fill temporary U.S. jobs in agriculture and other low-wage fields. By 1995, 24 percent of the 760,000 U.S. apparel workers were of Hispanic origin.

President Richard Nixon’s normalization of U.S. relations with China in 1972, the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 , and continued instability in Southeast Asia all led to a rise in Asian immigration. Foreign-born Asian workers increased in the New York garment trade by 265 percent between 1970 and 1980.

The Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 dramatically changed the makeup of the work force in the U.S. clothing industry. This new legislation abolished immigration quotas by country and encouraged family reunification, thereby opening the doors for greater Asian and Latino immigration.

Chart showing Asian and Latino immigration from 1954 to 1990

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Office of Policy and Planning, Statistics Division

Behind Closed Doors

Most sweatshops today employ about 20 to 40 people. Contractors set up operations wherever they can find a large potential work force and cheap rents — from old lofts in New York City’s Chinatown to storefronts in Los Angeles.

The people who run these shops have always been the bane and salvation of the apparel industry. Often recent immigrants themselves, these price-cutting competitors oversee operations that can rapidly respond to market fluctuations and fashion trends. Some manage decent operations, while others, responding to fierce industry competition and pressure by manufacturers and retailers, eke out profits by violating minimum-wage laws and safety codes.

East Washington Street, Los Angeles, 1997

Santee Street, Los Angeles, 1997

Troutman Street, Brooklyn, New York, 1997

8th Street, Los Angeles, 1997

Elberson Street, Queens, New York, 1997

South Cooper Street, Arlington, Texas, 1997

12th Place, Los Angeles, 1995

The Piecework Controversy

In the garment industry, workers are paid for the actual number of pieces they complete, regardless of how long it takes. Under federal and state law, however, employers are still required to pay the equivalent of the minimum wage.

Manufacturers and some workers point out that piecework rewards those who work quickly and stay focused. However, the system can easily be abused. Despite toiling at breakneck speeds, sweatshop workers often earn substantially less than minimum wage.

Production Notebook

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Workers record their output and compute their pay in production books like this one used by Yue Jin Wu, New York City, 1995.

Time card, Los Angeles, 1996

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In some sweatshops, phony time cards are maintained to deceive government inspectors. This time card, along with others seized by U.S. Department of Labor investigators, shows an employee working eight hours a day. Further investigation revealed that she actually worked much longer hours.

Despite the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which extended amnesty to illegal aliens residing in the United States, the number of undocumented Latino and Asian immigrants is estimated to be growing by 275,000 annually. Many of the nation’s estimated five million illegal immigrants work in garment production, agriculture, construction, hotel and food service, and janitorial and domestic work.

Some exploitative garment contractors use the threat of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deportation to keep workers from reporting health, safety, and wage code violations. A few contractors have even been known to turn in their own employees to the INS to avoid paying them their wages.

Ethnic Bridges — Ethnic Divides

Relations between sweatshop workers and managers are often complex. Not simply cases of victims versus oppressors, these relationships are also structured around community values, ethnicity, and business circumstances.

Tensions are often greatest when owners and workers are not of the same community. In many sweatshops today, racial animosity between Korean owners and Latino workers exists, whereas Chinese sweatshop owners are sometimes viewed by Chinese workers as “harshly benevolent.”

Chinese handbill advertising for garment workers posted in New York City’s Chinatown, 1997

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Translation: Skirt-pant factory seeking one pocket setter, seeking one zipper setter, seeking two regular lock-stitch operators, 88 Eldridge Street, fifth floor

Spanish handbill advertising for workers posted in Los Angeles garment district, 1997

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Translation: I need “cover stitch” [workers], sixth floor, #600

She does not pay minimum wage, but she serves her workers tea. She makes them work until midnight, but she drives them home afterward. She uses child laborers, but she fusses over them, combing their ponytails, admiring their painted fingernails, even hugging them.” — Jane Lii, New York Times reporter, describing Maggie Zhen, owner of Chai Feng sewing factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York, March 12, 1995

Industrial Change

By the 1940s, sweatshop production faded under the influence of strong labor organizations, government regulations, changing immigration patterns, and the shift by manufacturers from small contract shops to large factories.

In the 1970s, manufacturers began moving away from factory production. Focusing primarily on design, brand-name advertising, and distribution, they left the bulk of actual production to an army of contractors in the United States and abroad. In this environment, sweatshops re-emerged.

Today’s restructuring of the apparel industry is influenced by offshore manufacturing, changes in retailing and inventory practices, and the need to fill orders quickly.

Studebaker Truck, 1936

Women’s Synthetic Blouse, manufactured by Bardon of Hollywood, ca 1945

A Global Industry

Foreign competition and production rocked the apparel industry as the economic boom of the 1950s began to fade. In the late 1960s, American companies began to shift their production abroad to lower labor costs and secure a more compliant, non-union work force. Despite increases in U.S. clothing consumption, the number of U.S. garment workers dropped 37 percent from 1.2 million in 1970 to 760,000 in 1995.

Factory, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1942

Photographer: Jack Delano. Courtesy Library of Congress

The federal government’s Operation Bootstrap program in the 1940s and 1950s gave apparel producers financial incentives to set up factories in Puerto Rico.

Haitian women hand-stitching American softballs at Dudley Sports assembly factory, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1980s

Softball-stitching Vise

Foreign governments used the prospect of radically lower wages to entice U.S. apparel and sporting goods manufacturers to set up factories abroad. In 1981, a minimum-wage worker in Haiti made $2.64 a day; an American minimum-wage worker earned $26.80 a day.

Cartoon, about 1988

Courtesy Mike Konopacki

Placard from Washington, D.C., job rally, 1975

“Buy American” campaigns were one response by manufacturers and unions to global competition.

Shop 'Til You Drop

Enticed by convenience and broader selections, many American consumers have switched allegiance from small local retail shops to national chains and mega-retailers. Prices of goods fell significantly as these large retailers responded to consumer demand for lower prices. In turn, stores pressured manufacturers and contractors to lower their costs, creating a cost-cutting spiral that sometimes led to sweatshops.

Shopping mall, Baltimore

Retail employee using Laser Radio Terminal barcode scanner for inventory control, about 1992

Symbol Technologies Laser Radio Terminal, 1997

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Computerized tracking of store sales lets retailers reorder merchandise as goods are sold, eliminating the need to maintain large inventories and promoting domestic production. Although protecting store buyers from costly miscalculations of public taste and demand, this “quick response” approach puts pressure on North American manufacturers to produce and deliver goods quickly and with little lead time.

Many large department stores and retail chains lower their costs by directly contracting the production of clothes that they sell under their own private labels. These huge orders are too attractive to refuse but too large for any one contractor to fill, so portions are subcontracted out to other shops. Sweatshop abuses often occur in poorly supervised contract shops.


The media’s focus on sweatshops has generated public concern and reform efforts on many fronts. Areas of activity include socially responsible investment, workplace monitoring, government regulation and enforcement, unionization, and consumer-awareness campaigns.

As in the past, some approaches have been highly successful and others have yielded minimal results. Some economists even argue that sweatshop production is a necessary first step in a nation’s industrialization process.

“To get special labor laws to get rid of sweatshops — they’ve got a better chance to get hit by lightning.” — Eli Elias, New York apparel manufacturer, 1984

101 Dalmatians Haitian Pajamas

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According to the National Labor Committee, Haitian workers were paid seven cents (or 42 cents per hour) for every $19.99 pair of 101 Dalmatians pajamas sold. Some concerned citizens engaged in consumer boycotts; others encouraged shareholders to take action.

Activists and concerned citizens seeking to curb sweatshop production have copied some of the tactics pioneered in the fight against racism in South Africa. Beginning in the late 1970s, many institutional and individual investors battled apartheid by divesting the stock they owned in companies doing business in South Africa. Today, several mutual fund companies offer “socially responsible” investment portfolios that do not include companies involved in sweatshop production.

At the Walt Disney Company ‘s 1997 annual meeting, Progressive Asset Management, Inc., brought to a vote a shareholder resolution governing suppliers’ labor practices. Although the resolution did not pass, it received surprisingly strong shareholder support (39 million shares or 8.3 percent). Subsequently, Disney pledged to issue and post a contractor code of conduct and authorize audits and inspections of all contract facilities. Disney garment contractor H. H. Cutler then pulled out of production in Haiti.

Disney shareholder resolution, September 12, 1996

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The overwhelming mainstream view among economists is that the growth of this kind of employment is tremendously good news for the world’s poor.” — Paul Krugman, economist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1997

Levi Strauss & Co. Business Partner Terms of Engagement, 1991

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Reebok Human Rights Production Standards, 1992

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The JC Penney Supplier Legal Compliance Program, 1996

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Levi Strauss & Co., the world’s largest clothing manufacturer, is considered an industry leader for instituting the first corporate code of responsible contracting, in 1991. Since then, the practice has become more common in the garment industry.

Workplace monitoring is one way to ensure that contractors abide by manufacturers’ codes of conduct. Whether these inspections should be performed by manufacturers’ representatives or by independent monitors remains controversial.

Pamphlet from a non-profit monitoring organization, 1997

GMIES at gates to San Marcos free trade zone, El Salvador, 1998

Members of Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador (GMIES), which is composed of representatives from regional human rights groups and the local Catholic archdiocese, standing at gates to San Marcos free trade zone, El Salvador, 1998

UNITE poster

Farah slacks poster

In the 1970s, garment unions represented about 850,000 workers out of a total industry work force of 1.3 million. Membership declined rapidly as businesses moved offshore and into the non-union South and Southwest. In 1995, garment unions with a combined membership of about 335,000 merged to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees (UNITE). Organizing new workers has been a major priority.

Seeking Solutions through Cooperation

In 1996, President William J. Clinton formed the White House Apparel Industry Partnership to pursue non-regulatory solutions to the much-publicized sweatshop abuses in the United States and abroad. The group was originally made up of representatives from industry, labor, government, and public-interest groups.

Apparel Industry Partnership meeting at the White House, Aug. 2, 1996

In California, concern about sweatshop conditions spurred the formation in 1978 of the Concentrated Enforcement Program. With an emphasis on ending worker exploitation rather than apprehending undocumented aliens (estimated as one out of eight California workers in 1977), the program relied on religious institutions, activist groups, and other community infrastructure to reach the affected workers.

Since 1992, the fight against sweatshops has been continued by the Targeted Industries Partnership Program (TIPP). This joint enforcement and education effort of the California Department of Industrial Relations, the California Employment Development Department, and the U.S. Department of Labor focuses on stopping unfair competition and worker exploitation. TIPP’s most prominent case — the El Monte sweatshop — was cracked by investigators from the California Department of Industrial Relations.

The Worker and His Rights Booklet

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California Dept. of Industrial Relations Badge

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In the late 1980s, an innovative interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 allowed the federal government to seize goods made under illegal conditions. Pioneered under the Bush Administration, the enforcement approach was greatly expanded by President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

Using the threat of seizure, the U.S. Department of Labor has successfully recovered $12.5 million in back wages owed to more than 40,000 workers between 1993 and 1997. Manufacturers and retailers often pay the contractors’ debts to recover their goods and preserve their reputations.

In 1996, following the publicity from high-profile seizures, the U.S. Congress authorized an increase in the number of wage and hour investigators from 800 to 1,000.

Workplace Violations in Southern California Garment Industry

Violation Category

Percentage of Firms in Violation in 1994 vs 1996

Minimum-Wage Liability



Overtime Liabilities



Child Labor



Illegal Home-Work






Registered with the State



Minimum-Wage Fines (State)



Cash Payments without Receipts (State)



No Workers’ Compensation Insurance



Posting Requirements



OSHA Health and/or Safety



Serious OSHA Violations

35% ±


Tools (State)



Penalty Assessment



Other Sweatshops

Sweatshops in the apparel industry have received most of the public’s attention but, as in the past, illegal working conditions exist in a diverse range of industries. These work sites rely on a pool of low-skilled, easily exploitable workers with limited employment options.

Boycott lettuce poster

Title frame from “Harvest of Shame,” copyright CBS, 1960

Courtesy Library of Congress

Hoe belonging to California farm worker Marcelino Zavala

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A 1988 U.S. General Accounting Office report on U.S. sweatshops noted that over the preceding five years, an average of 65 percent of the restaurants inspected by the U.S. Department of Labor violated occupational safety and health as well as wage and hour laws.