Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Defying the Sweatshop, Sociologically Speaking

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Defying the Sweatshop, Sociologically Speaking

Article excerpt

From Machiladoras to My Wallet

It's one of those contemporary things everyone's heard of, but not many people have the details--a lot like Bigfoot or the exact origins of Thanksgiving. It's something we all know about, but you'd have to be pretty lucky or pretty driven, or both, to really learn the whole story on the matter.

I'm talking here about sweatshops. A sweatshop is the term coined to refer to a working environment (usually a factory) in which working conditions are inhumane and terribly uncomfortable. Usually, the typical symptoms of a sweatshop include long drawn out hours without enough breaks, poor ventilation, dangerous machines and other hazardous health conditions, low wages, usually those far below the living wage (or the minimum amount of income one needs to be able to live), and abuse of workers by management such as verbal abuse, exploitation (pregnant women and children of very young ages are made to work long hours) and in some cases even physical threats. Being deprived of the right to unionize is also a typical characteristic of a sweatshop, and in the worst case accounts some people have even "disappeared" or been shot at when attempting or preparing to unionize or defy their management. Sweatshops are found mostly in third world nations, although they can be present in the lower socio-economic regions of first world nations, such as in New York City's Chinatown. Consequently in some places these sweatshops are run illegally in secret, but in others they are built and run inside the vicinity of trade zones, and can sometimes be out of the reach of local governmental authorities (Kline 2000).

Sweatshops can produce anything from toys to designer jeans to computer chips, anything made in a factory--and the term has even been used to apply to the conditions under which those who pick coffee beans for companies like Starbucks, or tomatoes for companies like TacoBell, endure in the hot sun for far too many hours, for far too little pay. In Mexico, factories with these kinds of appalling working conditions are called Machiladoras.

But why do these horrid working conditions exist and who keeps contracting them to make things? The larger Megacompanies that are based out of and sell to markets in the first world (namely North America, Europe, and the Far East) have made it a habit since the early 1980s to practice what is called 'outsourcing.' In outsourcing a company in, say, the united states, (1) will sign a contract with one of these sweatshops or Machiladoras, to make a certain amount of their products using that factory's local labor. This allows the company to save ridiculous amounts of money as it does not have to run a factory of its own nor pay its workers anything near what it would have to if it owned a factory in the U.S. Because of this, modern Mega-companies like Wal-Mart and Nike, for example, own far less property than they used to but make exponentially larger amounts of profit. The products made in these overseas factories are then shipped to commercial stores in the U.S. and sold for prices that are extremely high in comparison to what it cost to make them. This system boils down to a simple equation--when a person in the first world buys a pair of pants from one of these stores, it increases the demand for those pants to be made in the factory on the other side of the planet, both perpetuating the use of these sweatshops and placing larger quota burdens on the people working there. Hence, if we remove the demand, we remove the sweatshop.

A common myth about this process is that only some stores partake in outsourcing and therefore some people will only steer clear of Nike, or only steer clear of Wal-Mart, but shop everywhere else. Unfortunately the ugly truth is that ALL commercial clothing stores, and most other companies--be they makers of toys, electronics, coffee, or fast food--employ sweatshops in some form or another. They all outsource and they all contribute to the climate of despair in the third world. …

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