Fashion darling Alexander Wang was served this month with a $50 million lawsuit from a man who used to sew his clothes. Wenyu Lu describes having worked 25 hours continuously without break or overtime pay in an unventilated, windowless part of Wang’s New York City design firm, and claims he was ultimately fired after voicing his complaints to management and filing for worker’s compensation. He sued, and dozens of his fellow employees signed on. The headlines that have rocked the fashion world put a name to Lu’s allegation: Wang ran a “sweatshop” in the United States of America.
Subpar working conditions in garment factories around the world have long been the subject of stateside media attention, but conditions in American factories largely slip under the radar. In fact, most consumers spy a label like “Made in the USA” and assume the workers who made their T-shirt are paid and treated better than most. As the Wang suit shows, even an expensive garment—an Alexander Wang tee can cost upwards of $200—doesn’t guarantee better working conditions for its producers (many of Wang's clothes are also made in China). The truth is that U.S. sweatshops have been on the rise for the past several decades.
Today, the term “sweatshop” conjures up vague imagery of concrete floors, low lights, heat, and, well, sweat. The term used to refer to a much more specific work environment: Its origins date back to the “sweated” trades of 19th-century Britain. The first sweatshops were the homes of manual laborers, sewers, cobblers, and furniture makers who worked for piece rate wages from the small spaces of their homes. Later, “sweatshop” came to include overcrowded and dangerous “official” workshops. By the turn of the century, the term had expanded to mean “any factory workplace in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy or oppressive conditions.”
These kinds of workplaces popped up in the United States as part of the industrial revolution, too, concentrating in big cities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Factory managers locked doors to prevent unauthorized breaks. Safety regulations were lax. Child labor was not uncommon. This kind of neglect culminated in the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911: 146 garment New York City garment workers, mainly young women, were killed inside the blouse factory after realizing they couldn’t open the locked doors leading to fire escapes.
World War II temporarily alleviated the worst working conditions, and by the 1950s and '60s, the booming post-war economy and a highly unionized apparel production industry rendered the American sweatshop virtually obsolete. Wages were now well above the poverty line, and unions achieved gains in health care and pension funds.
But that era of American clothing production wouldn’t last long. In Slaves to Fashion, Robert Ross writes that apparel jobs took another turn for the worse in the 1970s, thanks to the rise of globalization, weakening unions, a surplus of willing workers, and an influx of undocumented immigrants. Garment workers who could not organize made exploitation easy, a race to the bottom necessary, and the rise of a new era of sweatshops possible.
Today, Congress' General Accounting Office provides a simple definition of “sweatshop": “a business that regularly violates both wage or child labor and safety or health laws.” At this point, much of America's cheapest garment production has moved overseas, but Ross estimates that as late as 2000, there were still 255,000 sweatshop workers in the United States. Sweatshops can be found in New York City, California, and Texas. Factories that produce military uniforms are listed by watch groups as repeat offenders.
Meanwhile, watchdog organizations like the Fair Labor Association and The Worker Rights Consortium are spread so thin around the globe that inspections of domestic factories and workshops remain rare. A national code of conduct and laws to enforce it are still elusive. Corporate codes of conduct generally bind only the brand and the subcontracted vendor, leaving little to no incentive for the vendor to adhere to oftentimes vague guidelines that are never subject to outside accountability. Consumers keep buying clothes without really wanting to know who made them.
It doesn’t have to stay that way. The U.N. Global Compact plans to implement an industry-wide code of conduct this year, with details to be announced at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and Rio+20. The code could lead to a universal “sweatshop-free” label that's clear to off-the-rack consumers, a move that would throw a wrench in the cheap fashion race to the bottom. For the movement to be effective, every part of the fashion food chain must establish a commitment to accountability and transparency in the fight for workers’ rights, for garment workers both documented and not, at home and abroad. The real story of the working conditions at Alexander Wang’s camp is still up for debate—Wang denies he runs a sweatshop. But if Wenya Lu hadn’t spoken out, most consumers would never have begun to think about how their American T-shirt was made.