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A sweatshop is a manufacturing facility characterized by poor working conditions, violations of labor law, long hours, and low wages. The term originated in 1892, when concerned individuals began to speak up about the unsafe working conditions for American garment workers. Today, sweatshops can be found all over the world, although they are an especially big problem in developing nations. In some countries, consumers have lobbied major companies to reduce their reliance on this type of labor in an attempt to promote healthy working conditions for laborers in the third world.
Labor violations can take a number of forms. A sweatshop may be clean and well lit, for example, but it could still employ child laborers, or force employees to work long hours. Sweatshops can also be extremely dangerous for their employees; workers can be exposed to toxic substances or heavy machinery without adequate protection, for example.
A number of conditions promote the proliferation of these facilities. The first is the tendency of major producers in the first world to contract their work out to nations with less demanding labor laws. Many countries have left labor laws lax to encourage foreign trade, in the hopes of improving their economies and general standard of living. In nations where sweatshops do violate labor laws, labor inspectors may not be able to visit manufacturing facilities very frequently, and in some cases, they may be bribed into looking the other way.
Sweatshops also tend to use a number of techniques to control their workers, and employees are often kept in the dark about their labor rights. In some cases, for example, a manufacturer may provide housing and food for workers, essentially keeping them on the grounds of the facility at all times, and employees may be denied access to the outside world, which includes labor advocates, family members, and law enforcement. Because the work is unskilled, a company can also dismiss employees en masse if they express concerns about their working conditions or attempt to organize.
Clothing is one of the primary exports of sweatshops, but other consumer goods, ranging from rugs to children's toys, are also produced in such places. This can be frustrating for consumers who may want to try to avoid goods produced in poor conditions; many advocacy groups maintain lists of safe companies to buy from, along with lists of companies that routinely violate labor laws and human rights. Some companies also specialize in selling products like sweatshop-free clothing, catering to the market of concerned consumers.