Home / General / Respecting Women Means Closing Sweatshops

Respecting Women Means Closing Sweatshops



Too much of the talk around women at work these days revolves around wealthy women like Sheryl Sandberg. As Janey Stephenson argues, if we want International Women’s Day to mean something, that requires the closing of sweatshops worldwide. That will only happen if we create legal regimes that force companies to acquiesce to international labor law in their factories and that grants the rights of these usually female workers to sue in corporate nations of origin for real financial damages against their employers or the companies that contract with their employers. Without closing the sweatshops, the international exploitation of women by American corporations will continue and without empowering women and ending the race to the bottom, that international exploitation will never end.

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  • Er, I don’t think you actually want to close the shops, which would leave the women completely unemployed. What you mean to say is that you want to improve the working conditions and pay, no?

    • Unless clothes are not going to be made anymore, they would be replaced with factories that aren’t sweatshops.

      • Sorry, I’m not getting it. Does it matter whether they continue to work in the same building? What matters is safety, wages, hours, dignity and respect. Whether a specific business is closed and another takes its place, or the existing business is improved, is immaterial; but the latter is much more likely to happen.

        • joe from Lowell

          Nothing focuses the mind like a good hanging.

          In theory, the same old management and ownership structure could smoothly implement changes to their operations while remaining in place. In practice, it’s probably going to take putting some people out of business to get the industry’s attention.

          • Vance Maverick

            This seems pretty uncontroversial (just as the health department has to be able to shut down restaurants in order to compel compliance). There’s the problem of the race to the bottom — that closing a shop here will just move it across a border — but that applies to incremental negotiated improvements just as much as to closures.

            • Right, and that’s why the legal regime must be international and be focused on the corporate country of origin. Otherwise, close the Honduran sweatshop and the company moves 50 miles to El Salvador.

        • The Rana Plaza literally collapsed. 1129 workers died. It needed to be physically closed.

    • tsam

      They’re still largely built in old buildings with no ventilation, no life safety or fire protections, etc…

      I think Erik means that the working environment improvement, in most cases, would require razing the current structures and building modern buildings with exits and fire sprinklers and HVAC systems.

      • If one can renovate an existing building and make it safe and up to some basic level of a dignified workplace, then sure.

      • Vance Maverick

        The physical plant is only part of what makes a sweatshop. Hours and rules and pay matter too, and closures of businesses as opposed to buildings are tools for enforcement of all these.

        • tsam

          Very true. But the safety issue (as is discussed here frequently) is a basic human right that goes right along with humane working hours and compensation.

          It’s a sticky point for me because my career directly involves fire and life safety in buildings. So I tend to beat that drum pretty hard since in continuing education, things like the Iroquois Theater Fire, which sparked the invention of panic hardware, is always mentioned as a reason we do what we do–equip buildings with proper life safety devices and design.

          • PhoenixRising

            It’s important to note that the nations in which sweatshops tend to be located (My specific examples are all Cambodian, but the nature of the problem is that your mileage isn’t going to vary by a lot) tend to also have backward, corrupt local enforcement authorities. So a made-over facility in which code enforcement is left to Cambodian fire marshals…is not a building I want to work in.

          • Sometime, compare the 1901 NYC building code with the 1916 code, which was the first new one after the Triangle fire. The egress provisions suddenly went from a handful of scattered paragraphs to several detailed pages.

            tsam, can you drop me a line at NB64NB at gmail regarding this topic? Fair warning: if you’re looking for hot polar bear pr0n, I will disappoint you.

            • Ahuitzotl

              cold polar bear pr0n?

  • joe from Lowell

    to sue in corporate nations of origin for real financial damages against their employers or the companies that contract with their employers

    What about giving workers the ability to bring cases in those international trade-enforcement bodies that are currently used by companies and nations? Might that work?

    • Certainly worth exploring the idea.

      • rea

        My practical concern would be this: imagine a Bengali factory worker who loses a hand due to bad safety conditions in the workplace. There is no way that it is going to be economically feasible for the injured worker to litigate that case in a US court. The recovery would be eaten up by the travel expenses. It might work for the big cases–factory collapse kills 1129 people–but not for ordinary cases.

        • joe from Lowell

          I’m thinking in terms of class actions and widespread conditions, not individual cases.

          The laws could empower unions to handle the cases.

        • tsam

          Sounds like a job for the NLRA–to bring suit on their behalf.


          It’s a good idea though.

    • Brett

      Some of that stuff is in the Bangladeshi Safety Accord – grounds for arbitration, enforceable bodies, legally binding commitments to safety. You’re never going to get US retailers to agree to any sort of open-ended liability commitment on safety, but it at least sets up the possibility of damages in case they’re negligent.

      • Yeah, the Accord is a step forward. But ultimately, US companies have to be forced to go along and it is going to be the federal government who is going to have to make that happen.

        • joe from Lowell

          All it takes it one slacker to hit the low road, and it becomes basically impossible for the rest to adhere to the treaty. We’re talking about low-margin commodity industries. If someone can shave a little bit, they won’t suffer as pariahs; they’ll accumulate market share.

          You need government enforcement to ensure uniformity.

  • MikeJake

    International Woman’s Day? I thought that ended once women got membership at Augusta National.

    • Hogan

      From the Wonderella Twitter feed:

      Happy International Women’s Day! It’s also Daylight Savings so you may get slightly less – but you’re used to that, right?

  • Dumbspear OSparrow

    Not to go all “Two Cheers for Sweatshops” on you, but the impact of sweatshop industrialization on gender relations has been much more ambiguous, and even positive, than either Loomis or Stephenson allow here. I’m thinking in particular of Naila Kabeer’s work on Bangladeshi garment workers: being a breadwinner really improved their status within their own households, although they also felt the need to work hard to reassure their husbands and fathers that the men were still ultimately in charge. Obviously the pay and working conditions in sweatshops have to be improved, but to say that sweatshops only make gender relations worse is simply not true.

    • Once again, no one is saying to throw these women out of work. What I am saying that we have to make that work safe, nonpoisonous, and dignified.

      • shah8

        Will take a sec to concur with Dumbspear OSparrow, in the sense that there *is* a lot of evidence that can support the idea that women are more empowered, get higher literacy, etc, in sweatshops as compared to the alternatives. I don’t necessarily buy that, in the sense that the advantages compensate for the disadvantages.

        Again, though, I don’t think things change without changing local political realities, everywhere. Yes, if the women in El Salvador gets a better deal, the factory moves to Honduras. However, if an international legal regime is set up, domestic elite will simply setup a system of repression or legal alienation, and make it very hard or very costly to use that system.

        • Brett

          Maybe. But Erik has brought up a Cambodian example where things worked out well for a few years, and only collapsed once the agreement collapsed.

          • Right–the U.S. government can–and has–gotten involved in the past to ensure basic levels of human rights in these factories.

            Too many people see the current conditions as the best that can be done. That’s not at all true and it is dispiriting to hear these comments.

        • joe from Lowell

          Yes, shah, it would be hard. Hard, and a never-ending struggle to keep up with the efforts to dodge the regulations. All of this would require a full-court press from our entire foreign policy apparatus, working on the issue as a top priority.

          Whatever staff they set up to enforce intellectual property rights against China, we’d need something 10x as large to do what we’re talking about.

          It would be as big an item on a President’s policy agenda as the ACA and ARRA together. No question, it’s a huge job. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

          • shah8

            That effort might be better served figuring out how to empower worker’s political prospect, though…

            And again, what always seriously bugs me about Loomis’ policy preference is the conflict of interest issue wrt to US gov’t, US companies, and foreign workers. Might always be a conflict of interest regardless since…foreign workers, but democracy promotion is more of an accepted out.

  • burnspbesq

    That will only happen if we create legal regimes that force companies to acquiesce to international labor law in their factories and that grants the rights of these usually female workers to sue in corporate nations of origin for real financial damages against their employers or the companies that contract with their employers.

    That’s entirely correct, of course. But suppose for a moment that you get everything you want in this regard. How (if at all) are you planning to keep the costs associated with your new regulatory regime from sliding all the way down the supply chain and landing on the retail consumer? Unless you have some reasonably feasible plan to make the shareholders at some level on the supply chain eat those costs, you’re inevitably setting up a zero-sum game between poor non-U.S. manufacturing workers and poor U.S. consumers.

    • Brett

      Realistically, you’re never going to get either the US government or US retailers to agree to any sort of open-ended liability for the behavior of their subcontractors in poor countries. But you might be able to get them to agree to legally binding agreements that set up arbitration and damages, inspections, and paying for safety improvements.

      It also might be possible to eventually pass a law like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, banning them from contracting with foreign firms that operate unsafe factories/workshops/etc. At which point they’d have to document that they worked with a firm doing good practices, and accords like the Bangladeshi one would become much more attractive.

    • Pseudonym

      How much of the cost of clothing currently goes to the garment workers themselves?

      • PhoenixRising

        Good call–pennies, is the answer.

        It’s tempting to set this up as zero-sum, and suggest that without a mechanism to force shareholders to absorb the difference we can’t afford standards. But that’s not true–the total cost per piece of improved wages and paying for adequate regulation is just not an amount that Wal-Mart employees would notice.

    • We all know that Burnsie does not support labor rights so his answers are not worth a serious reply.

      • burnspbesq

        Bullshit (as an aside, I’m willing to bet that I have more union members in my genealogy than you, or the vast majority of regular commenters here). What I don’t support is half-assed, incompletely-reasoned proposals that don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of ever improving the lives of a single industrial worker anywhere in the world.

        If you can’t or won’t address perceived holes in your proposals, maybe it’s you who shouldn’t be taken seriously.

        • Yes, clearly having union members as ancestors means something.

    • joe from Lowell

      U.S. consumers as a whole, especially the poor ones, would have more money in their pockets if there was a reliable international system that prevents their jobs from being undercut by worker exploitation.

      Protecting the welfare of workers is not zero-sum.

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