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What are White Collar Sweatshops?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 16, 2024
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White collar sweatshops are office jobs that feature overwork, underpay, too much stress, and not enough security for their workers. They are based on the combined idea of the anxiety, rigor, and job cuts of blue collar jobs, and the frantic work days and low pay of sweatshops. The term was popularized by Jill Andresky Fraser in her 2001 book White Collar Sweatshops: The Deterioration of Work and its Rewards in Corporate America.

Andresky shows that shrinking benefits packages, hostile takeovers, mergers, contingency workers, corporate buyouts, longer work days, and cost cutting all contributed to the emergence of an overworked workforce. She cites Citigroup, Disney, and IBM as examples of white collar sweatshops, and blames many federal regulatory changes for these transformations among the upper working class at many places.

With the rise of competitive big-money corporations has come an increase in competition over jobs and salary. This has led to an increased workload by employees unsure of their job security. Not knowing where their future within a corporation may lie, white collar sweat shop workers find themselves pulling longer days, more weekends, and harder shifts. They reduce break times, increase productivity, and continue working from laptops well after shifts are over.

This competitive increase of work-related duties, coupled with a decrease of free time, sleep, or family time, leads to a high stress level at white collar sweatshops. This stress takes its toll on mental and physical health, making the increased duties even more difficult to carry out for many employees. According to the author, more Americans are working between 49 and 60 hours per week than ever before, and the rise of beepers, cell phones, and laptops has increased the anxiety of the work day more than ever before.

The banking, communications, and high technology industries are especially susceptible to white collar sweatshops. Industries such as these often feature high turnover, and stress-inducing ratings, rankings, and statistics. The economic boom of the 1990s, according to the author, skipped the white collar employees that run these industries, and went straight to the top of the companies. Perks and bonuses were sacrificed by the white collar sweatshops worker, while stalemated salaries and entry-level wages became the norm.

Fraser, a financial reporter, blamed the emergence of white collar sweatshops on 24-on-call weeks, shrinking pension plans, and the ability of a boss to access an employee anytime through e-mail. She cites employee-unfriendly situations and bosses at Intel, and says that the culture of the white collar job has changed unalterably in an age of big money and big business. The change has led to the white collar sweatshops and the stress, risks, and insecurity that accompanies them.

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Discussion Comments

By bythewell — On Sep 03, 2014

@clintflint - It's more complicated than that. And people often compare the States to places like Finland, where there are different cultural and economic conditions, and don't bother to make comparisons to countries like India, where white collar sweatshops are the norm.

No where is perfect and there are always compromises to be made wherever you live. And there are definitely places in the United States that need to take a good, hard look at their corporate policies in regards to the way they treat employees. But there are some aspects that are much improved over other places in the world and we should acknowledge those as well.

By clintflint — On Sep 03, 2014

@Iluviaporos - My sister has worked in a couple of places in Europe and Oceania as well as the States and she was kind of amazed by how much more downtime she had elsewhere. I just don't think most Americans realize that there is another option that is enforced by law in other countries.

By lluviaporos — On Sep 02, 2014

If you've ever seen one of those charts that circulate on Facebook every now and then, comparing the amount of holiday time and hours worked by office workers per country, you will see that the United States lags far behind most other developed countries. And that's including even the majority of offices that wouldn't be called sweatshops.

Most white collar workers in the US seem to be pushed into working ridiculous hours for very few benefits. I guess it's a result of unemployment levels, though, since no one can afford to take a stand and risk losing what little security they do have.

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