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Feminists Against Sweatshops

Inside a Sweatshop: An Eyewitness Account

by Olivia Given

I spent the summer of 1997 researching sweatshops and women workers' rights for the Feminist Majority in Washington, D.C. In July of that year I got the chance to go inside a New York City garment district sweatshop. I had been reading official Department of Labor (DOL) and NGO (non-governmental organization) reports for months beforehand. I had interviewed everyone from union and corporate representatives to DOL officials but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

I thought the sweatshops of my great-grandmother's day -- New York tenements where women toiled away in filthy, cramped rooms sewing dresses with children at their feet -- were long gone; done away with by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the rise of trade unions in the 1950s and '60s.

But one bright Saturday morning in late July, two sweatshop workers, volunteer organizers from the UNITE (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, America's largest garment workers' union) workers' center took a group of other students and me into a tall building on West 38th Ave. In the small and dingy ground floor lobby, there was no one to ask us who we were or where we were going so we boarded a terrifyingly rickety elevator and headed for the upper stories.

We stepped out onto the dirt and grease-smeared floor of the 20th story. There was a sweaty, musty smell in the air and the faded institutional green paint on the walls was peeling badly. To my right the early morning sunlight streamed in, silhouetteing pigeons perched on a stamp-size balcony. To my left, a stale yellow light streamed out of a cutting room. Inside were approximately 25 Chinese and Latino men. They stood (all day I was told) over waist-high work benches, measuring and cutting fabric. Their manager sat in the corner at a desk with a fan. He was Korean, like 80% of all Manhattan garment industry contractors.

I was suprised that the first workers we encountered in the building were men. I had heard that 90% of all garment workers were women. The men on the 20th floor, however, proved to be the only men we saw in the whole building.

It was 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning but production was well under way and most of the work rooms were almost full. Our guides told us about the hours they had worked in sweatshops: 7 days a week, from 7AM to 10PM each day, with a half hour for lunch and one 10 minute afternoon break. There were a few workrooms on each floor and each workroom had about 20 individual workbenches. Our guides said that during the week each room would be filled to capacity. There was no air conditioning. Open windows allowed the stale air in the workrooms and narrow halls to circulate and even let in a fresh breeze every once in a while. There was better ventilation here than in most shops, I was told.

In contrast to the men, all the women we encountered sat hunched over sewing machines. Teetering piles of fabric overshadowed each workbench. Metal cage doors sealed the entrance to each workroom. We spoke briefly, in Spanish, to some of the women working in these locked cages. Many of the young women were working to support families. They expressed a guarded dissatisfaction with their pay and working conditions.

None of the workers would speak unless spoken to. Punishments for speaking during working hours, one of our guides told us, could range from physical punishment to firing. It was apparent that workers were afraid to talk to us. Later in the day, during the workers' lunch hour, when we distributed leaflets about workers' rights on street corners all over the garment district, one worker refused to take a flyer, pointing out that his boss was watching from a few feet away.

The highlight of the 6th floor was a putrid toilet, one of the 3 that serviced the entire 21-story building. Our guides told us of the long lines that formed for the bathrooms during the lunch break. Anyone who took bathroom breaks during the working hours would be told not to come back the next day.

On the 10th floor, a huge bin of fabric pieces blocked the narrow hallway. We squeezed past and spotted a toddler peeking through the holes in the door, her tiny fingers curled around the dirty metal strips. She was three, her mother told us. There was no money for daycare so she accompanied her mother to work and played on the floor while her mother sewed.

On the 9th floor we found more children who were working. Two young boys were standing next to a towering pile of sleeves, turning them right side out, one by one. The boys were eight and ten years old. Women, our guides told us, are encouraged by managers to bring their children into work with them. The managers will always find something for them to do.

* * *

We heard about the widespread sexual harassment; managers call female workers into the back of the workroom, try to touch and hug them and threaten to fire them if they refuse. We were told of the dehumanizing verbal and physical abuse; managers scream at workers to work faster and dispense sharp taps on the head for talking or working too slow.

Almost no one spoke English and most workers were unaware of their rights as workers, independent of their immigration status. The managers prefer an uninformed and frightened pool of workers. Unionized workers don't get hired, our guides assured us, and any workers suspected of talking to union organizers are fired.

When we asked one of our guides how she got involved with the union she described how she went from job to job, working for sub-minimum wages and then for one contractor who didn't pay her for four months. After that she went to the worker's center for help.

Almost all of the workers are recent immigrants many of whom are here illegally. New workers simply take the place of the old; Haitian, Chinese and Central American immigrants have replaced the Slavs, Jews and Italians of a century ago; and still it's women who suffer.

* * *

Walking along the streets of Manhattan between Penn Station and Times Square as a child, holding onto my mother's finger, I always wondered what was perched up in those high stories, above the fabric and ribbon shops, where all I could glimpse was a dim yellow light and the cage of an old black fan. Now I know what was up there and I'm embarrassed to say that I was too naive to even imagine it.

More sad and painful than witnessing the struggle of these workers was seeing the responses of the well-dressed, manicured and coiffed women and men to whom we handed out flyers about sweatshops and child labor in front of bridal shops on 7th Avenue, only a few blocks from the sweatshop I had just visited. To these people out of sight was out of mind. The plight of the sweatshop workers just down the street was lost in the hustle and bustle of New York City.

In the end, I knew I had probably reached a few people, and helped a few workers. A few hours of my Saturday morning, usually spent lounging in front of the TV in my pajamas, helped bring these women one step closer to winning the rights systematically denied to them every day. Know that you too can do something about sweatshops. You don't have to sew your own clothes. Write your Congressperson. Make this an issue in your town.

Photo courtesy of Cara Metz, Unite Here