Past and Present -- Always the Sweatshop?

By Arthur Linenthal
Volume 1, Number 3 (Spring 1991)
Issue theme: "A world without borders?"

Once again, with millions of new immigrants...creating a vast pool of poor and easily exploitable workers,1,p.26 we are seeing an explosive growth of sweatshops,1,p.26 --places where workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions.2 And it has become a national shame that children are among the...most widely exploited workers.

They live in poverty and neglect as they harvest our food, work in hundreds of dingy

factories stitching Made in America tags into

our clothes, assemble cheap jewelry in trailer

homes and tenements, operate dangerous

machines in restaurant kitchens and neighbor-

hood stores....

Often they are scalded and burned, sliced up

by food machines, exposed to pesticides in the

field and choking fumes in the factory. They

fall and fracture their backs, and break their

arms frequently delivering and picking things

up for us.

Sometimes, they are left badly maimed and

disfigured for life.

Sometimes, they are killed.

Nearly all the time, they get tired, miss

school and are ignored.3,p.1

The situation is reminiscent of the early 1900s, when other millions of new immigrants--men, women, and children--also formed a pool of cheap exploitable labor. Tenement house workrooms, for example, where the occupants manufactured clothing...fostered dreadful conditions. Material was cut in factories and then handed over to contractors who arranged for the apparel to be finished in the tenements. The contractors found their profit by obtaining service from immigrant women whose capacity for work was limited only by the quantity of material they could get and by their endurance.

A physician serving as a state health inspector, described conditions in tenement workrooms in Boston, Massachusetts

One woman, for example, in addition to her

housework and the care of three children, has

to work from fourteen to fifteen hours a day

on the sewing machine in order to make one

dozen pairs of overalls, for which she gets

seventy-five cents. Out of this pittance she

pays for the delivery of the goods both ways.

Her earnings support the whole family con- sisting of an alcoholic, shiftless husband and

three children. Not only do the women work

excessively long hours, but in the evening other

members of the family are drafted into service.

The vitality and powers of resistance of the

tenement workers are thus lowered by the

unsanitary conditions of the homes and by the

excessively long hours of work. They fall an

easy prey to all forms of disease,...and become

a public menace.4,pp.32-33

Pulmonary tuberculosis was of particular concern. Overcrowding, overwork, poor general sanitation, poor ventilation, and lack of sunlight all contributed to the development and spread of this dread disease. Careless spitting was a common habit, and the organisms could survive in sputum for months. The physician reported a striking example of this problem

In September, 1907, a two-room flat in a

narrow, dirty street in the North End was

visited. In the two rooms there lived a

young man of twenty-five with his mother and

grandmother. The two women finished trousers

at home--their only means of subsistence.

The young man was so ill with tuberculosis

that he was unable to work. A small, low-

studded room used as a kitchen and workroom

served at night as a bedroom for him. When

the house was visited a small kerosene stove

was burning and the family dinner cooking.

The windows were tightly closed and the air in

the room was suffocating. The young consump-

tive stayed at home as he was indisposed

to go out. He was subsequently admitted to

Rutland [State Sanitorium], where he stayed

for several months and from where he re-

turned, with the disease apparently arrested,

to live in the same two-room flat under the

same unsanitary conditions. He got along

fairly well for a time, but in the spring

of the current year [1909] the tubercular

process became very active, ending in his death

in August.5, p.795

The legal abolition of home work would address the public health problem but would also raise complex economic and social considerations. Much of this work in Massachusetts, for example, was done by women under quite healthy conditions.6, p.582 In the 1940s this striking example of the conflict between social and health goals was addressed by the federal government, and the Labor Department banned certain work in the home.7 Some bans were lifted in the 1980s, however, after vigorous objections by a group

of women who knitted outerwear in their homes in Vermont.8

Will this conflict of free enterprise versus prevention of the exploitation of workers ever be satisfactorily resolved? Must the sweatshop always be with us?

* * * * *


1. Butterfield, BD; Wave of children toil in new sweatshops, Boston Globe, April 25, 1990, pp. 1, 26, 27.

2. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v.sweatshop.

3. Butterfield, BD The tragedy of child labor, Boston Globe, April 22, 1990, pp. 1, 22, 23.

4. Linenthal, H Sanitation of clothing factories and tenement house workrooms. In Locke, EA, ed. Tuberculosis in Massachu-setts, Chap. 4, pp. 28-36. Boston Wright & Potter, 1910.

5. Linenthal, H Hygiene of tenement workrooms--Tuberculosis in tenement workrooms, In Forty-first Annual Report of the State Board of Health of Massachusetts for 1909, pp. 793-96. Boston Wright & Potter, 1910.

6. Hanson, WC Fifth annual report of the work of the state inspectors of health. In Forty-third Annual Report of the State Board of Health of Massachusetts for 1911, pp. 517-96. Boston Wright & Potter, 1912.

7. Noble, KB U.S. will end ban on work in home. New York Times, November 11, 1988, pp. 1, A26.

8. Shabecoff, P U.S. lifts homework ban for knitting outerwear. New York Times, October 9, 1981, p. A12.