What Are the Common Characteristics of Sweatshop Workers?
Sweatshop workers tend to be members of the lower classes and have had few education and employment opportunities. Conditions in sweatshops are characterized by being crowded and dangerous, with minimal regard for regional labor laws. Organizations that have an interest in protecting sweatshop workers, improving working conditions or eliminating sweatshops altogether use a number of tactics, including pressuring governments and encouraging consumers to request sweatshop-free goods.
Women and children are more likely to work in sweatshops, although there are male workers as well. In some regions, women might have difficulty finding other work, and in a tight labor market, sweatshop labor could be appealing. They typically work very long hours in excess of regional laws, often with few or no breaks. Sweatshop workers might work in shifts to keep a factory in production 24 hours a day, and they could work 10 or more hours per shift, depending on company policies.
The crowded conditions for sweatshop workers can be dangerous. In emergencies, crowding can make evacuation of a facility challenging, especially if the factory is also locked to keep employees inside. Tight conditions also tend to contribute to the spread of disease. Respiratory illnesses can travel quickly across a factory floor, and workers might feel obliged to show up for work even when they are sick because they could lose their jobs otherwise.
Job security for sweatshop workers is very low. They might be fired for calling in sick or showing up late to work, and some companies also penalize workers who attempt to organize, especially if they are involved in union organizing. Injuries also can lead to a firing, and workers typically are encouraged to avoid reporting injuries to the authorities, because this could attract attention and lead to an investigation of the working conditions.
Some sweatshop workers might live in dormitories and eat at a cafeteria provided by the employer. Others commute in from the surrounding community. Sweatshops are often located in special economic zones where large numbers of companies cluster together to take advantage of relaxed regulations and incentives. The reduced regulation applies to labor laws as well, and some workers have minimal legal options if they believe that they are being exploited and want to report or sue their employers.
In some regions, people might start working at a very young age and usually are taken out of school to do so. As a result, sweatshop workers might be illiterate or could have very minimal education. This can make it difficult for them to pursue other opportunities; they might not even be able to rise within the ranks of the sweatshop because they lack the literacy and skills needed for supervisor positions.
I read an article about a Russian woman who spent three years in a prison sweatshop making uniforms for the military. She said the machines were dangerous and outdated, but no one could complain to the supervisors. She worked 16 hours a day at one point. Many of her co-workers became completely withdrawn mentally, so they rarely spoke to her.
One day she decided to file a complaint about the work hours, saying it was inhumane and dangerous to force people to work 16 hours a day. The supervisor told her the prison could put her back on an 8 hour schedule if she wanted, but they would also let the other sweatshop workers know about her "privileged status". She withdrew her complaint.
I'd also be willing to bet that most sweatshop workers also suffer from mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. The stress of reporting to work in a horrible factory after getting minimal sleep and personal time would have an effect on my mental status, too. These workers don't have the freedom or time to look for other work, and they realize they are trapped.
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