It seems as if lately, you can’t even turn your head for a split second without hearing of a lawsuit against a designer for operating factories under dangerous working conditions coupled with pay below the local living wage. Last year, it was Tommy Hilfiger; this year, the Kardashians were being accused, and most recently and most notably, Alexander Wang. And as much as many Americans would like to believe that such working conditions are only a result of de-regulation in third-world countries, the lawsuit against Alexander Wang reminds us that even in our own backyard, violations of labor law in the name of fashion are being committed, even today. More shocking is that sweatshop conditions have existed in America for more than 100 years.
What we now know as sweatshop labor is a practice that has been associated with growing, unregulated economies for centuries, and unfortunately, modern societies still have yet to rid it. In the early twentieth century, against the backdrop of growing American markets, capitalism, and competition, sat the workrooms of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company atop of a ten-story building in New York City. The company, known for making shirtwaists, employed about 700 workers who were mostly girls from sixteen to twenty-three years of age, and packed them in tight working spaces with little to no regard for their safety. While hot machines constantly ran to meet production quotas, the factory that saw its fair share of small fires would experience an uncontrollable fire on the night of March 25, 1911. The fire burned for only thirty minutes, but in that short period, the entire factory was engulfed and 141 bodies were either “burned to death or killed by jumping to the pavement below.” The factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were tried and found not guilty on charges of manslaughter. Public uproar followed, and the New York State Legislature soon enacted thirty-six statutes to regulate workplace safety and minimum working standards for women and children.
That was in 1911. Today, these working conditions are still a reality for many garment workers abroad, and history has not taught American businesses much. In 2001, a fire in a Bangladesh garment factory broke out on a crowded floor; boxes of polo shirts only helped to fan the flames while 1,250 workers fled for their lives. In these factories, fire hazards come in the form of heaps of fabric creating dead-end aisles and guards positioned at locked gates, and fire prevention comes in the form of “empty red water pails.” Poor countries like Bangladesh have little to offer to the rest of the world, but they can offer “some of the world’s cheapest labor” in return for an economic boost from a $4.3 billion apparel industry. Labor in these countries cost American corporations pennies an hour, and yet the savings realized are not reinvested to help make these factories any safer.
What pushes the need for sweatshop labor? “Every day low prices.” American consumers want low prices while American companies want high profit margins. With little ground to move on, this zero-sum battle between low prices and high profit margins goes abroad where companies like Nike and Wal-Mart can operate outside the constraints of American labor law. While abroad, these companies only have to follow local labor standards that allow “employees as young as 14 to work 60-hour weeks, often for less than $1 a day.” Arguably, while these compensation rates are higher than the regional average, how these companies seemingly disregard workers’ health and safety just because they are not American workers is most troubling. American labor law and market economics force American apparel companies to outsource manufacturing, and as such, American tort liability should follow these companies wherever they contract work because domestic pressures have helped to flourish foreign sweatshop factories. By themselves, long hours, unsafe working conditions, low wages, and child labor do not raise much international concern, but in concert, these circumstances create opportunities for exploitation of foreign labor, and need to be rectified.