Sweated Labor as a Social Phenomenon Lessons from the 19th Century Sweatshop Discussion
The ongoing controversy about sweatshop labor has mainly focused on economic, on the one, and ethical aspects, on the other side. While proponents of sweatshop labor have argued that low wages would attract foreign investments, would create new workplace opportunities and thus improve economic welfare in less-developed countries, opponents of sweatshop labor argue that such treatment of laborers would violate their dignity, and they prompt western buyers to stop this kind of exploitation. However, the arguments in this debate are not new. As we will show, they can be traced back to the early “sweatshop” debate between social reformers and classical liberals in the 19th century. Interestingly, the 19th century debate identified sweatshop labor not as an industrial system but as a social phenomenon which becomes more likely when several social preconditions are fulfilled. It will be shown that the social preconditions identified in this debate determine working conditions till today and can be used to identify industries were sweatshop labor is more likely than in others—even in western countries.
KeywordsSweatshop Liberalism 19th century Working conditions Remedies against sweatshop labor
Introduction: The Contemporary Sweatshop Debate: Proponents and Opponents
Sweatshop labor is discussed as a widespread phenomenon especially in labor intensive industries with low productivity as, for example, textile industry, toy-making or footwear industry (e.g., Arnold and Hartmann 2005; Meyers 2004). In globalized economy most of such industries have moved their production plants to less-developed or developing countries where sweatshop labor conditions are facilitated due to lax enforced labor regulations and low-wage levels (Arnold 2010). In the recent past, pictures about the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, a textile-fabric in Bangladesh, which caused the death of more than thousand workers shocked western consumers and sparked the discussion about the labor conditions in the global apparel industry (Labowitz and Baumann-Pauly 2014; Perry et al. 2015; bpb 2018). However, the collapse of Rama Plaza shows that disastrous working conditions of sweatshop laborers are not caused by economic conditions alone. Sweatshop labor is a social phenomenon which is caused by various factors, like illegal construction of factory buildings, lacking inspection of health and safety conditions, corrupt state officials, ignorance of workers about their rights etc. (Labowitz and Baumann-Pauly 2014). Unhealthy working conditions in illegally raised buildings, exposure to hazardous chemicals during the production process, or sexual harassment of female workers cannot be explained solely as a characteristic of underdeveloped national economies which have to be endured by the workers as a kind of interim step on the way toward better economic conditions. Furthermore, sweated labor is not a phenomenon of developing countries alone but also occurs in industrialized economies where we can find immigrant and posted workers paid below the regular wages, working unpaid overtime and under unhealthy working conditions. This shows that sweated labor cannot be explained simply by the low productivity of the workforce, but results from other social factors as well.
In this vein, business ethicists like Denis Arnold together with Norman Bowie (Arnold and Bowie 2003, 2007) and together with Laura Hartmann (Arnold and Hartmann 2005, 2006) as well as Jeremy Snyder (2008, 2010) have criticized sweatshop labor from a moral point of view. On the basis of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative they argue that sweatshop owners owe respect to their workers (Arnold and Bowie 2003; Arnold and Hartmann 2006; Snyder 2010). Such respect demands the provision of healthy working conditions, adherence to national legal standards, paying wages above the poverty line and refraining from coercion, as for example forcing overtime or prohibiting workers’ association (Arnold and Bowie 2003, 2007; Arnold and Hartmann 2005). Systematic violation of such workers’ rights is a denial of respect vis-à-vis another person, and thus it is illicit seen from a Kantian perspective (Arnold and Bowie 2003).
In contrast, especially Zwolinski (2007, 2012) and (Powell 2006, 2014, 2018; Powell and Zwolinski 2012), as well as Sollars and Englander (2007, 2018) or Flanigan (2018) argue that every legally mandated increase of wages as well as any legally required improvement of the working conditions going at the expense of the employer would create unemployment and worsen the economic situation of the laborers (Zwolinski 2012; Powell 2014; Powell and Zwolinski 2012). As Sollars and Englander (2007) argue, each wage regulation pushing wages above the market price would either lead directly to lay-offs in the factories or to divestments of the multinational brand-manufacturers producing in these countries—which would cause the same effect at the end. Furthermore, even if sweatshop labor is exploitative in that sense that wages paid in such factories regularly are below living wages, this kind of labor is the best available alternative for unskilled workers (Sollars and Englander 2007). Therefore, reducing the workplace opportunities of these workers by prohibiting sweatshops would be an infringement of the autonomy of these laborers and their right of free choice (Zwolinski 2007).
This position, again, has been criticized from various angles. Thus, for example Preiss (2014) argues that managers owe respect to their workers and should not take advantage from background injustices which force laborers into disadvantageous working conditions. Thus, for him, unjust background conditions in the case of sweatshop labor disable workers to exercise autonomy. In a similar vein, Neu (2018, pp. 25–48) criticizes the analytical atomism of the economic analysis. In his eyes the strict focus on the “voluntariness” of the laborers’ choice to work in sweatshops ignores the political and social conditions that make sweatshops the best available alternative. The strict focus on the voluntariness of the workers’ decision would distract from the conditions under which the decision has to be made (Neu 2018). Other critics of the economic position scrutinize the voluntariness of the workers choice when deciding to work under exploitative working conditions. Even if workers would prefer to work less or demand higher wages they are forced by their fellow-workers which compete for the workplace not to voice their true preferences since others would be willing to accept these conditions to get the job (Coakley and Kates 2013; Kates 2015). Seen from this perspective, legal regulations concerning working hours or minimum wages would help sweatshop workers to realize their preferences in cases where they are trapped in such kind of “prisoners’ dilemma”. Given the positive effects of increased wages for local economies Coakley and Kates (2013) argue that legal regulation of working hours and minimum wages is not only a matter of morality but also will lead to positive economic outcomes. This analysis is questioned by Powell (2018) who argues that in cases of legal regulation capital will be shifted to countries without such regulations and that therefore such regulations will lead to unemployment in the respective country.
It is not the aim of the following paper to decide about this dispute. Nevertheless, as we will outline in this contribution, many of the arguments brought forward in the contemporary discussion about sweatshop labor are not new, but have been made already in the 19th century debate about the exploitative working conditions in Great Britain and the United States. Interestingly, in the 19th century sweated labor was not seen as a specific problem of industrial production, but as a social phenomenon. Thus, it was argued, sweatshop labor could be eliminated only by concerted activities of all actors in society. It is the argument of this paper that such broader perspective on sweated labor might help to advance our understanding of the sweatshop phenomenon also in the contemporary debate.
The paper is structured as follows: In a first step we will outline the historical background of the 19th century debate about sweated labor and present the main arguments brought forward in the public, economic and political discussion. In the next step we will analyze the success of the remedies as they have been proposed in the 19th century debate to fight sweatshop labor and demonstrate how these origins point the way to advance our understanding of sweatshop labor as a social phenomenon in the following. As we will argue in our conclusion, this broader perspective allows us to understand the “debate” about sweatshops differently. Thus, we claim to broaden the discussion about sweatshop labor by initiating a debate also about the political and social preconditions which enable such exploitative labor conditions.
The Early Sweatshop Debate: Historical Background
Nowadays the term “sweatshop” describes working conditions characterized by low wages, forced overtime and unhealthy working environment. In its origin, it derived from a specific form of organization of the clothing industry in the mid nineteenth century where middlemen, the “sweaters”, organized the contracts with tailor shops and passed on the work to subcontractors, mostly unskilled sewing workers. The origin of the word “sweater” remains unclear. One plausible explanation traces the word back to the “sweating” of gold coins which was practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “Sweaters” put gold coins together in a bag and by shaking the bag they collected the rubbed off dust. Thus, they generated their income at the expense of other people’s money (Shorrocks 1877). Similarly, it is thought that the sweater, the middleman in the textile industry, “sweats” his money out of the earnings of others (Shorrocks 1877; Potter 1888; Banks 1893, p. 82; Willoughby 1900).
The sweating system spread in the British textile industry in the middle of the 19th century. It came about by the practice of the British government to source military clothing by making contracts with cheap clothing shops which passed the work to subcontractors which either worked in small workshops themselves or sublet the work to homeworkers (Kingsley 1850; Schloss 1911). This system was adopted by the whole branch and was transferred also to other industries, like production of matchboxes, manufacturing of cigars and cigarettes (Fox 1889), boot making (Schloss 1889a), cabinet making (Aves 1889), the silk industry (Argyle 1889), or the fabrication of artificial flowers (Collet 1889). With certain modifications,1 the sweatshop system was also found in nail and chain making, cutlery making and other businesses, but reached in no sector the same importance as in the textile industry (Booth 1889; Banks 1893, pp. 84–87; The Fabian Society 1894b; Willoughby 1900).
Between the 1850s and 1860s the sweatshop system reached the east coast of the United States (Banks 1893, pp. 85–86) but came to broad public attention first with the end of the 1880s (Auten 1901). While until then labor in the US was comparatively more expensive than in Europe, due to low population density and readily available work alternatives in agriculture (Newman 1851, p. 73; Jones 1859, p. 130; Hobson 1896, pp. 89–90), the flood of immigrants reaching the big cities of America in the middle of the 19th century made work cheap. Since most of these immigrants, coming from Russia or Italy (Hicks 1892), had only insufficient English language skills (Auten 1901) they easily could be forced into unfavorable working contracts (Wadlin 1892). Especially in the large cities, the conditions for immigrant workers declined dramatically. It was estimated that in the vicinity of New York alone in 1900 more than 40,000 people worked in the clothing industry under sweatshop conditions (Daniel 1892; Wadlin 1892; Willoughby 1900), compared with approximately 18,000 to 20,000 in London in 1888 (Report 1888b, pp. 570–571; Lee 1892).
Although Thomas Hood (1843) in his poem “The Song of The Shirt” had lamented the distress of the needlewomen before, it was probably Henry Mayhew who brought sweatshops to broad public attention in Great Britain (Schloss 1911). As “correspondent” of the Morning Chronicle, Mayhew issued a series of letters about the conditions of the “working poor” of London. In the issues of 14th and 18th December 1849 he reported about two tailor meetings in Shadwell and at Hanover Square where he had interviewed the workers about their oppressive working conditions (Mayhew 1981a). One year later, in his pamphlet “Cheap Clothes and Nasty” Charles Kingsley, under the alias Parson Lot, stigmatized the poor working conditions of the London tailors and describes detailed the dubious practices of the sweaters (Kingsley 1850). In the following years several publications followed criticizing the practices of the sweatshop system (Potter 1888, Report 1889a, b, 1890; Schloss 1889b, 1892a, 1892b; Daniel 1892; The Fabian Society 1894a, b). Similarly in the United States, Louis Albert Banks, in his book “White Slaves”, decried the dreadful working conditions in the sweatshop industry in Boston based on official reports and his own observation (Banks 1893).
By the turn of the century several societies had been founded to fight sweatshop labor, like the “National Anti-Sweating League” in Great Britain in 1906 (National Anti-Sweating League 1907) or the “Anti-Tenement House League” in the United States in 1891 (The Anti-Tenement House League 1894). But also unions and several humanitarian organizations started to agitate against sweatshops, like the socialist Fabian Society in Great Britain or the Methodist Epworth League in the US (The Fabian Society 1894a, b; Banks 1893).
By and large, the sweating system existed in two different forms (Willoughby 1900). (1) The first kind of sweatshops was more common in the United Kingdom and is analyzed in depth by Kingsley (1850). Here the sweaters served as subcontractors and employed workers in their own workshops (Kingsley 1850, pp. 4–5). Since the work was paid according to piece wage the sweaters employed more labor than regularly needed.2 While waiting for the next order, the workmen were not allowed to leave and had to stay overnight in the workshops, so that they could start work immediately when the order came in (Kingsley 1850, p. 6). During the waiting time the sweaters supplied their workers with tea and meal which was charged to the workers at extraordinary prices (Kingsley 1850, pp. 7–8). Additionally, the workers had to pay for lodging. The rooms were often overcrowded and the sanitary situation disastrous (Kingsley 1850, p. 8). As Kingsley shows, the prices charged for food and lodging often exceeded the sweater’s profit from his ordinary work (Kingsley 1850, p. 10). Additionally, the sweaters introduced a subtle system of fines the workers had to pay when work was not done according to the advice of their sweater (Kingsley 1850, pp. 16–17). Thus, it was impossible for the workmen to earn a living wage and often the workers were in debt to the sweater (Kingsley 1850, p. 8; see also Shorrocks 1877; Banks 1893, p. 87). In this case the workers had to pawn their clothes and while their clothes were in pledge they were unable to leave the sweaters den being imprisoned for months (Kingsley 1850, p. 11).
(2) The other system of sweatshop labor became popular also as “ticket-system” (Kingsley 1850, p. 23). In this system the work is done at the home of the worker with the help of the family and sometimes low-paid workers. The workers received the fabric and a ticket describing the order, the customer and by when the work had to be finished. In the United States such work was performed mainly in small dens in the attics, cellars and rear buildings of mostly old tenement buildings. This “tenement house industry” was described by Banks in his book “White Slaves”. The work was paid as piece work and prices were reduced to the starvation limit. Work was artificially shortened by the sweaters, employing more people than needed, to “keep all these people hungry for work” (Banks 1893, p. 27). To earn one’s absolute minimum the seamstresses had to work between 16 and 20 h a day when an order came in (Schloss 1889a; Wadlin 1892; Banks 1893, pp. 20; 37; 86). In this system the sewing women not only had to pay for their own dens and light and heating—in slack and busy season alike—but also were charged for the delivery of the material and had to pay for their needles and threads themselves (Schloss 1889a; Banks 1893, pp. 39–40). The prices charged for the rooms in the backyards of the old tenement houses—ironically called “garden shops” (Potter 1889, p. 220)—with bad light and disastrous sanitary conditions were above the average rentals (Potter 1890; Banks 1893, p. 20; Willoughby 1900). Due to long working hours the lodgings were neglected and due to the insanitary work environment contagious diseases became a serious problem of the tenement house industry.
However, most contemporary observers doubted that the “sweating-system” really was a “system” in the sense that it could be described as a specific, systematically employed method of industrial production. Rather the term “sweating system” was used as an allegory for exploitative labor in general. Interestingly, the argumentation pro and contra such exploitative labor conditions was quite similar to that in today’s discussion. By and large, three different discourses can be distinguished: (1) a public discourse mainly concerning the unhealthy and disastrous working conditions, (2) an economic discourse about the effects of wages on the labor market, and (3) a political discussion about the possibilities of abolishing exploitative working conditions. All three discourses will be outlined briefly in the following.
The Public Discussion
One of the reiterated complaints in this discussion is the argument of unregulated competition which forces laborers as well as their sweaters into the fight for each contract at ever lower prices (Report 1889b, 1890, pp. xxi–xxiv). Especially the government and the practices of public procurement are mentioned as one of the reasons for the ever decreasing wages (Kingsley 1850, p. 9). Due to a readily available unskilled workforce, willing to work under whatever conditions, unregulated and low-paid labor became one of the hallmarks of the sweating system (Potter 1889; Booth 1889; Auten 1901). This was certainly true. The sweating system in Great Britain was regularly fed with fresh workers coming from Ireland and later also from Germany and Poland (Report 1888a, pp. 164, 772; Report 1889b, p. 95). In the sweating system they were kept like slaves in the sweating dens of their masters: “In less than a week after they get here, their clothes are all pledged, and they are obliged to continue working under the sweaters” (Kingsley 1850, p. 12).
However, it was not only the distress of the slop-shop workers which was discussed from a humanitarian perspective. The fight against unhealthy and unsanitary working conditions was also a fight against infectious diseases, like small-pox or scarlet fever (Shorrocks 1877; Lee 1892). Thus, the fear of the customers being infected by contagious diseases was at least as important as the philanthropic feelings toward the exploited sweatshop workers (Wadlin 1892, p. 95). Numerous examples of transmission of diseases by infectious clothing have been reported over the years (Kingsley 1850, pp. 21–22; Shorrocks 1877; Lee 1892, Wadlin 1892, Auten 1901). Consequently, it became a public demand to have a proof of origin where and under which conditions the clothes have been manufactured (Shorrocks 1877, p. 6).
Another standard argument which was not really mentioned to better the lives of the working class but rather to meet the moral feelings of Victorian society was the argument of the moral degradation of the sweatshop workers. Sweaters’ dens often were overheated by the small gas ovens where the platters had to heat their irons. Thus, most of the workers—male and female—were only scarcely dressed. Furthermore female and male workers lived together in the small dens and had neither separate rooms for sleeping nor separate sanitary facilities (Auten 1901). In the eyes of the Victorian society this opened the pathway to promiscuity and prostitution. This impression has been reinforced by several reports about the cynical behavior of the sweaters vis-à-vis the low-paid younger female workers advising them to look for a “gentleman-friend” to better their earnings (Banks 1893, p. 138; Hobson 1896, p. 75).
In the broader public “the tenement house industry” is seen as the primary cause of this development. It was assumed that, if such “hidden industry” would be controlled the same way as factory labor is controlled neither unsanitary working conditions nor exploitative regimes could spread (Auten 1901). Since the big factory owners operate in the “open light of the day” they are forced by public opinion also to regard the interests of their workers and to provide healthy and respectful working conditions (Potter 1890). This all is disregarded when work is sublet to small sweating dens and to homeworkers.
Also in the United States the discussion about sweatshop labor became a public topic. In their General Meeting of September 2, 1892 the Department of Social Economy of the American Social Science Association made “The Sweating System in Europe and America” the conference topic of their annual meeting. Although the members of the society had a more academic focus on the topic, the contributions, by and large, mirrored the arguments in Great Britain already discussed. However, the US-American discussion brought two new arguments to the forefront. While on the one hand the disastrous and unhealthy working conditions have been emphasized, on the other hand, this was seen as somehow “un-American” and as dangerous for a capitalist society since “the existence of such an industrial body is also, for economic as well as ethical reasons, against the interests of the capitalist or employer” (Wadlin 1892, p. 100). Furthermore, wage inequalities for the same kind of work became a new topic in the discussion and were stigmatized as “one of the greatest injustices and evils of the whole system” (Auten 1901, p. 608) since in this case the sweaters take advantage of the ignorance of their workers. Since most of the sweatshop workers did not speak English it was difficult for them to understand the terms of the contracts they signed (Banks 1893, p. 225). Thus, also illiteracy became a new topic in the discussion about sweatshop conditions.
The Economic Discussion
The economic discussion about sweatshop labor concerned theoretical questions of the wages theory, on the one hand, and a more practical debate about the labor conditions, on the other. While the first was more or less an academic discussion, the latter concerned the practical question of what economic advantages such a system provides from company perspective.
The theoretical debate about the social conditions of the laboring class at the beginning of the 19th century was heavily influenced by Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (Malthus 1999) and David Ricardo’s assumption of an “iron law of wages” which states that the remuneration of workers has the general tendency to fall to the physical minimum which allows the bare existence of the laboring class (Ricardo 2004, pp. 101–105). In line with this argumentation, John Stuart Mill affirmed that every regulation aiming at improving the wage level of laborers at a given stage of production will disadvantage the laboring class because this either leads to an increase of the prices of wage-paying commodities which would annihilate the wage-effects, or to a decrease of production which leads to a decrease in the employment rate (Mill 2006a, pp. 355–366; see also Farwcett 1884, pp. 5–6). Based on the assumption of the so called “wage fund theory” (Newman 1835, pp. 243–244; M’Culloch 1870, p. 120; Mill 2006a, pp. 337–338; b, p. 643), which assumes a fixed amount of money provided for wage purposes in every period, Mill and other liberals refused every kind of guaranteed minimum wages since this either would reduce companies’ profitability and lead to divestment or decrease the availability of work opportunities (Mill 2006a, pp. 355–356; Perry 1869, pp. 137–140; M’Culloch 1870; pp. 173–174; Hobson 1896, p. 83; Fawcett 1884, p. 4). Although such a view was opposed by some authors (Walker 1876, pp. 138–151; Newman 1851, pp. 104–123) the idea of the “iron law of wages” was a common assumption among contemporary liberal economists. And even the Lords’ Commission in Great Britain, appointed in 1888 to investigate the effects of the sweating system, concluded in line with Malthus “that the inefficiency of many of the lower class of workers, early marriages, and the tendency of the residuum of the population in large towns to form a helpless community, together with a low standard of life and the excessive supply of unskilled labor, are the chief factors in producing sweating” (Report 1890, p. xliii).
On the other hand, the inevitable social consequences of such “iron law” have been stigmatized as “hard-hearted Malthusianism” by many economists and social reformers. Popular writings like “Past and Present” (Carlyle 1843) as well as the work of the Chartist movement increased public awareness concerning the social conditions of the laboring class. Thus, also many economists rejected Malthusianism as a dangerous doctrine by pointing out the awful social consequences of such theory (Robinson 1829; Senior 1830, 1858, pp. 44–50; Scrope 1831, 1833, pp. 276–279; Whewell 1831, pp. 160–162; 168–170).
However, the controversy was not based on philanthropic arguments alone. In particular, authors like (Helps 1845), Longe (1866) or Thornton (1869) challenged the liberal economic doctrine by arguing that its assumptions concerning the effects of raising wages are basically wrong. The argumentation is twofold: First, referring to the wage fund theory, Thornton argued that even if employers plan their wage investments in advance they are not interested in expanding the whole wage fund if they are able to buy labor at cheap prices. Thus, the wage funds must be seen as the maximum employers are willing to pay. But if labor is cheap, employers may pocket additional profits (Thornton 1869, pp. 84–85, FN). As a consequence, employers are naturally inclined to keep wages at the lowest possible level. But, conversely, this means that an increase in wages does not necessarily lead to divestments but reduces the yet not exhausted part of the wage fund. In his review of Thornton’s book in the Fortnightly Review of May 1869, even Mill accepts this argument, but warns that the wage fund expenses of the employer depend on “the practical consideration, how much would ruin him, or drive him to abandon the business” (Mill 2006b, p. 645).
Second, Thornton endeavored to show that due to the mechanism of the wage negotiations laborers are always in a weaker position than their employers and not equal partners voluntarily concluding a contract if this seems favorable to them. Due to the fact that laborers compete with one another for work they undercut each other with their wage demands. Thornton used the example of the Dutch auction at which the buyers can wait for steadily decreasing bids of the suppliers (Thornton 1869, pp. 46–48; see also Blanc 1848, p. 30). Given the fact that employers demand a limited amount of labor in each production period, low wages will not increase the demand for labor since they simply result from the bidding system. Thus, low wages do not create work opportunities but increase the earnings of the capitalist. Giving credit to this argument, Mill concludes that the allegedly incontrovertible law that unemployed capital will always search for new investment opportunities and thus wages will rise due to additional investments in new forms of production is wrong (Mill 2006b, p. 643). And he admits that permitting unions would create a level playing field and ameliorate the weak position of the laborers. However, this was only a theoretical concession. In practice, a steadily growing number of immigrants inhibited unionism and solidarity. Thus, Beatrice Potter rightly observes that “it is useless for a starving man to refuse to underbid his fellow workman, if a woman or a foreigner steps into his place” (Potter 1888, p. 182).
In the practical discussion about the sweating system the arguments in favor of the system prevailed. On the one hand, it was argued that this system allows for more flexibility in the production and, on the other, that this system creates new work opportunities for unskilled workers. Especially from an industrial perspective the system of middlemen was seen as a means for flexibility since the subcontractors could split the work among differently skilled workers and pay wages according to their respective competences, thus reducing the overall labor costs (Potter 1888; Schloss 1889a). From the perspective of the clothing industry, subcontracting was also seen as a means to deal with seasonal variabilities of the production since it guaranteed an “indefinite elasticity of seasonal employment” (Potter 1889, p. 215; see also Hobson 1896, pp. 96–97). It also helped to reduce the danger of misjudging the markets and to deliver the “latest fashion” on short notice (Auten 1901). As the middleman is able to distribute work to “seasonal” workers this lowers the costs of production, compared with a permanently employed staff (Banks 1893, p. 48). Furthermore, the sweating system allows for reducing storage space and saving rents since clothing was produced “in time” at the lodgings of the workers (Hobson 1896, p. 97). For the “better” shops it was seen as a possibility to deliver bespoken garments “overnight”. The critical aspects of the system mentioned in the discussion concerned mainly the fact that the subcontracting system could be used to bypass factory regulation and regular sanitary inspection—which astonishingly is mentioned as an “advantage” of the system (Lee 1892, p. 118; Hobson 1896, pp. 97–98). Additionally, due to such lack of control, it supported excessive overtime of the workers and facilitated child labor in different forms. Since during the season more workers were occupied than during the rest of the year the tough competition among the subcontractors leads to ever decreasing prices for the workers as well as for the middlemen (Lee 1892).
However, such low wages as an effect of the tough competition in the tailoring industry were seen as “fair competitive rate” (Lee 1892, p. 123). If unskilled workers are unable to earn their living this is not due to “unfair bargaining” or the sweating system, but due to the inadequate skills of the worker who is unable to find a better work (Banks 1893, p. 50; Lee 1892).
The liberal position sees no kind of exploitation in the sweating system since (1) it allows the workers to take the best job alternative available for them (Banks 1893, p. 48), (2) it provides better living conditions for immigrants than in their home-countries (Banks 1893, p. 49), (3) it forces subcontractors to offer work at the best terms available under competitive conditions, and (4) it creates additional jobs, since nobody else is willing to provide job opportunities for low-skilled workers (Lee 1892). Thus, the reduction of work opportunities for low-skilled workers would worsen the situation of those who have to offer only low-skilled manual work (Hobson 1896, p. 87). Nevertheless, most authors believe that competition should be fair. If factories are subject to regular inspection and have regulated working hours, this should be applied also to the tenement house industry. Otherwise, always some work will be driven out of the factories to small shops and sweating will be supported (Lee 1892; Booth 1889).
The Political Discussion
Due to the public discussion of the sweating system the topic also became an issue in the political fora. In 1888 the British government appointed a Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Sweating System which presented its final report in April 1890. During the hearings (Reports 1888a, b, 1889a, b) nearly 300 witnesses from various branches were interviewed (Report 1890, p. iii). Also Canada appointed a commission in 1895 which issued its report in 1896 (Report 1896). In the United States several states appointed a commission to report on the sweating system: Massachusetts in 1890, New York in 1891, and Pennsylvania in 1894 (Willoughby 1900). As a consequence of the reports several new factory laws were passed.
Although the Lords’ Committee was unable to define exactly what the sweating system is, it delivered the standard definition of “sweated labor” as it is used still today and stated that sweated labor is characterized by a low rate of wages, excessive working hours and unsanitary working conditions (Report 1890, p xlii). Though the Lords’ Committee mentioned basic characteristics of the sweating system, this was only a summary of the symptoms but not a diagnosis (Lee 1892, p. 115). From the evidence brought before the committee it was clear that such working conditions are caused by the immigration of low-skilled workers accepting poor living conditions, by a specific wage system which allows for ever decreasing wages, by the permission of subcontracting, by an artificially exacerbated competitive environment, by the way public procurement is organized, and by a strict division of labor and the separation of workplaces which leaves the workers in ignorance about the wages paid in the industry (Hobson 1896, p. 98). Thus, the Report of the Lords’ Committee was criticized for its shortsightedness, ignoring important factors which influence the sweating system: “The mass of struggling men and women whose sufferings have been laid bare by the inquiry are oppressed and defrauded in every relation of life: by the man who sells or gives out the material on which they labor; by the shopkeeper who sells them provisions on credit, or forces them under the truck system; by the landlord who exacts, in return for the four walls of a bedroom, or for the unpaved and undrained back yard, the double rent of workshop and dwelling; and, lastly, by every man, woman, and child who consumes the product of their labor” (Potter 1890, p. 889)—“The sweater is, in fact, the whole nation” (ibid.).
As a consequence of the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Lords Great Britain passed two new laws in 1891: The Factory and Workshop Act and the Public Health Act. Additionally, by a provision which came into force on August 15th 1892 employers became obligated to keep lists stating the names of all people employed and the places where the work is carried out (Schloss 1892b). Due to the recommendations of the Select Committee to abolish all forms of sweating in government and municipal sourcing (Report 1890, p. xlv), in February 1892 the House of Commons passed a resolution about fair wages for government contracts. In reaction to the disastrous conditions of clothing manufacturing for the army and navy as made public by Henry Mayhew (1981b) in a report of the Morning Chronicle dated November 9th 1849, the British government had introduced a new Army Clothing Department as early as 1855. Step by step, the British government abandoned their system which allowed their contractors to sublet the work to subcontractors and started to produce military clothing in their own factories (The Fabian Society 1894a, b). For work done by contractors, they established a scale of fixed wages which had to be paid by the employers (Schloss 1892b).
In the United States first Massachusetts ordered investigations of the sweating system in 1890. As a result in May 1891 a new law came into force followed by various amendments in 1892, 1894 and 1898. According to the new regulations any place where clothes are made should be considered as a factory and be supervised by state inspection. Families working in the clothing industry had to apply for a special license which was granted after inspection of the workplace. Garments which were not produced under such license “shall have affixed to each of said garments a tag or label not less than two inches in length and one inch in width, upon which shall be legibly printed or written the words ‘tenement made’ and the name of the state and the town or city where said garment or garments were made” (Massachusetts Law Chap. 357, 1891). Offenses should be punished by a fine up to 200 USD or imprisonment up to 6 month. Under this new law also manufacturers and merchants producing and selling tenement made goods were made liable for legal violations.
New York started first investigations in 1888 and in 1891. As a consequence of the reports of the commissions New York passed a law concerning sweatshop labor in 1892 (New York Law, Chap. 655, 1892) followed by several amendments in 1896, 1897 and 1899. The law followed the Massachusetts regulations but extended the scope to all kinds of tenement made products. Furthermore, the necessary inspection for licensing a workshop had to state the maximum number of persons allowed to work in one den and the tenement owner became liable for violations against the law (Willoughby 1900). In time, also other states followed with more or less similar regulations: Illinois 1893, New Jersey 1893, Pennsylvania 1895 and 1897, Ohio 1896, Indiana 1897 (Willoughby 1900).
The two most effective regulations made by the law were the “tenement made” tag and the widening of the liability for law violations to manufacturers and merchants. Interestingly, it was less the public reacting to the “tenement made” label, than it was the manufacturers and merchants which feared to be stigmatized by the label. In New York it was found that during only 1 year 59 new factories were built providing over 15,000 new workplaces for workers formerly employed in the sweating system. Furthermore, more than 17,000 workers moved from their homes to regular shop buildings with small workshops built according to the new law (Willoughby 1900). However, even though the new laws helped to improve working conditions they did not improve the wage situation of the laborers.
However, the new factory system made it easier for workers to found unions. In 1894 the unions of the garment workers called for a strike in the city of New York (Willoughby 1900). The demands were replacing piece work by time work, minimum wages, overtime regulations and the employment of union members. Furthermore, the unions issued a “fair-wage”-label guaranteeing that production was made under fair working conditions (Willoughby 1900; Auten 1901). Although successful at the beginning, the tailor unions turned out to be weak in the long run (Willoughby 1900). When their demands were fulfilled many supporters left the unions and they sank into oblivion in the following years. Furthermore, the newly formed “National Consumers’ League” issued its own fair-labor label which soon competed with the Union Label. While the unions insisted that only their label guarantees that the clothes are made under conditions of regulated working hours and at reasonable wages, the Consumers’ League asserted that only their label proves that the products are manufactured without child labor and under healthy sanitary conditions (Kelley 1899; Auten 1901).
Successful and Less Successful Remedies Against the Sweating System
As the different past discussions show, the arguments brought forward against the sweating system are similar to those raised in the contemporary discussion. Although the question of unsanitary working conditions which endanger consumers’ health has been replaced by a discussion about unhealthy working conditions which jeopardize the health of the sweatshop workers, problems like starvation wages and excessive working hours have not changed so far. As Willoughby (1900) outlines, the problems of the 19th century sweatshops concerned: (1) better workplace conditions with regard to sanitary conditions, ventilation, light etc., (2) prohibition of working in living rooms; (3) abolishing of subcontracting; (4) abolishing of the piece work in favor of the time work system; (5) better wages; (6) reduced working hours. Other problems mentioned in the discussion were (7) the immigration problem, (8) the poor education of sweatshop workers and (9) the problem of seasonal fluctuations of employment—problems which are addressed in the contemporary discussion in a similar vein.
Successful and less successful remedies against sweatshop labor
Enhanced State Control
Workshops became subject of regular inspections; liability for legal violations was extended to tenement owners and the owners of department stores
Helped to improve sanitary and working conditions; new workshops and manufactories have been built in accordance with the new legal regulations
Promotion of the “industrial system”
Moving workers to regular factories was seen as remedy to fight excessive overtime during the busy season and to guarantee healthy conditions
Increased working conditions and helped to reduce excessive overtime; piece pay was replaced by hourly pay; but wages remained low
Improving Social Conditions
The self-respect of the sweatshop workers should be increased by educating the workforce and moving them to decent housing
except some successful experiments from engaged philanthropists (e.g., in Boston) this idea found no broad support
Empowering unions and collective bargaining
The establishing and the support of labor unions was seen as best remedy to solve the wage problem and to improve the bargaining position of laborers
Unions failed because workers left them after being successful one time and the mass of unskilled laborers made collective bargaining impossible
Foundation of workers co-operatives
Following the examples in France, especially Christian socialists proposed to fight the sweatshop system by encouraging workers to unite in workers’ co-operatives
Failed since low-skilled workers in the clothing industry lacked discipline and knowledge and had to be strictly supervised and forced to labor
Regulations to control immigration
Immigration should be limited to reduce the influx of low-skilled and uneducated workers willing to accept low wages and unhealthy working conditions
Though immigration as one of the core problems of sweating has been discussed broadly, regulations have been enacted first in the 1920s for the USA
Labeling “fair-labor products”
In addition to the “tenement-made” label, unions and consumers’ association issued different labels indicating fair labor and healthy working conditions
While the “tenement-made” label was more successful since it was intended to blame the merchants, other labels did not succeed
Initiating consumer boycotts
Consumers should boycott sweatshop products to stop this system
Only wealthier consumers—anyway not clients of the slop shops—did follow; poor consumers remained dependent on cheap clothing
Enhanced state control In the public there was a wide consensus that only a system of rigid control could help to improve the labor conditions in the sweater dens. Although the new laws regulating sweatshop labor have only been enforced successively, they were seen as a first step on the way of abolishing sweatshop labor. Products manufactured under conditions not according to the respective standards had to be labeled as “tenement made”, albeit, the success of the “tenement label” was torn: While wealthier buyers avoided buying “tenement made” goods, the working poor remained reliant on the cheap sweatshop products of their fellow-workers. On the other hand, but more importantly, it was the merchants who did react since the label also became a sign for the quality of the respective warehouse (Auten 1901).
Promotion of the industrial system Subcontracting was discussed controversially. Most authors did agree that the subcontracting system was rather a symptom of the sweating system than its cause (e.g., Potter 1888). Thus, the claims for abolishing subcontracting concerned not the system itself but its effects on labor distribution. Thus, most authors agreed that the factory system would be the most effective remedy to fight sweating (Wadlin 1892; Schloss 1911) since it would help to fight the excessive overtime during the working season and would allow workers to unionize to advance their interests (Auten 1901).
Improving social conditions Another recommendation concerns the social situation of the sweatshop workers. From this perspective, the self-respect of the sweatshop workers should be increased by educating the workforce and moving them to decent housing etc. (Wadlin 1892). Furthermore, it was proposed to establish a national employment bureau especially to help immigrants to find suitable work upon landing and thus to reduce the likelihood that they were employed under sweatshop conditions (Auten 1901). And to solve the problem of expensive rents charged by greedy landlords, Banks recommends public investments for offering housing space for affordable prices (Banks 1893, pp. 202–203).
Empowering unions and collective bargaining To keep wages above the starvation level, minimum wages have been deemed an appropriate remedy (Auten 1901). However, this was discussed controversially. Interestingly, it was not the fear that minimum wages would lead to unemployment but that they could be bypassed by the employers which dominated the discussion. Hence, recommendations to solve the wage problem referred to the establishment of labor unions to create a level playing field and counterbalance the power relations in the wage negotiations (Hobson 1896, pp. 102–103; The Fabian Society 1894a). However, due to the high pressure from the masses of unemployed seeking for work such labor organizations were often too weak to be successful in the long run (Booth 1889; Schloss 1892b): “The whole force of Unionism hangs on ‘the unemployed’. The (…) weakest Unions are in trades which are beset by crowds of outsiders able and willing to undertake the work, and if necessary to underbid those who are employed” (Hobson 1896, p. 111).
Encouraging the foundation of workers co-operatives Notably Christian socialists made the proposal to fight the sweatshop system by encouraging workers to unite in workers’ co-operatives based on the model of the successful working co-operatives in France (Kingsley 1850, p. 31; Schloss 1911; Mill 2006a, pp. 766–794). To support the foundation of workers’ co-operatives “micro-credits” for workers would presumably help them to found their own companies (Kingsley 1850, pp. 29–30). However, in reality, most of these “co-operatives” could survive only by the financial help and the administrative support of charity organizations. It turned out that the low-skilled workers in the clothing industry lacked discipline and knowledge and had to be strictly supervised and forced to labor (Report 1888a, pp. 844–845; Schloss 1892b, Lee 1892; Potter 1890; Hobson 1896, pp. 106–108).
Regulations to control immigration In Great Britain as well as in the United States the sweating system was associated with the immigration of a cheap workforce. Especially in the United States the low standard of living to which the newly arrived had been accustomed was subject of discussion. The immigrants were seen as less educated, less civilized and less cultivated than the Americans. Thus, it was recommended to establish emigration offices overseas to channel the flood of immigrants and to select only the best educated and most skilled workers (Banks 1893, p. 233; Auten 1901).
Initiating consumer boycotts: Especially, Potter (1888, 1890) never got tired of repeating that also the consumers bear their share of responsibility for the persistence of the sweating system. However, most attempts to initiate consumer boycotts against sweatshop labor on a large scale failed. Although several labels tagged the origin of the product, this was seen rather as a measure to protect consumers than as a means for improving working conditions. Nevertheless, the idea of labeling products as unhealthy “tenement made” turned out to be more successful than the other label systems. As Auten (1901), based on interviews with merchants, shows, many merchants tried to avoid selling goods fabricated in sweatshops either due to moral concerns or due to the fear of negative reactions of consumers.
Discussion: Lessons from the 19th Century Debate
At first glance, the analysis of the sweatshop debate of the 19th century seems to be only of historical interest. However, such analysis also provides some important findings for the contemporary discussion about sweatshop labor. Thus, the analysis of the 19th century debate helps us to detect industries which are prone to sweatshop conditions and where such exploitative labor relations are more likely than in other industries. It also helps to explain which actors and which practices cause or at least contribute to the maintenance of sweatshop conditions: labor legislation, public procurement systems, consumer behavior etc. This allows for identifying responsible actors with specific responsibilities to remedy sweatshop labor.
Although the subcontracting system was not mentioned as the cause of sweatshop labor it was, nevertheless, one of its hallmarks (e.g., Wadlin 1892; Willoughby 1900). The deeper the subcontracting chain the lower are the wages paid at the end of the subcontracting chain. Today, subcontracting is an important matter in western countries and is exacerbated by systematic outsourcing of service activities with short-term contracts which are regularly renewed, mostly at less favorable terms and conditions for the subcontracting firm. Especially in the European construction industry subcontracting with Eastern European companies is used as a way to bypass national wage regulations. Referring to the situation of construction workers in the Netherlands, Germany and Finland Caro et al. (2015, p. 1601) point out that hiring posted workers via foreign subcontractors “has become one formulation employers use to avoid labor regulation and employ low-wage migrants in precarious jobs.” Similarly, sub-contracting has become also a problem in other sectors: In Spain shipyard workers organized strikes against cheap subcontractors from Poland and Portugal which paid workers below the minimum wage. Spain then enacted new laws regulating subcontracting (Meardi et al. 2012). German parcel services have employed drivers from Ukraine hired via Polish subcontractors to get their visa for Germany. The drivers are paid below the minimum wage, have to work up to 16 h a day, are fined when they are unable to accomplish their task and have to pay for accommodation and other “services” provided by the subcontractor (Buhse 2018; Schaer 2018). In the German meat-processing industry posted workers, mainly from Bulgaria and Romania, are kept separately and are not permitted to talk with their German co-workers. They are charged excessively high for accommodation and work gear and are not allowed to leave the factory compound (Lillie and Wagner 2015; Kunze 2014). This has triggered a discussion about legal regulations of subcontracting in the EU (Zahn 2017; Lampart 2019).
Another characteristic of sweatshop labor mentioned in the early discussion has been the piece-work system. Such system allows management to enlarge the workload and, thus, to reduce the prices per piece to the absolute minimum and to force workers to work overtime to make their living (Willoughby 1900). Although, piece-work pay allows for a performance-based remuneration, and thus might be welcomed as an opportunity to earn additional money by the workers in some industries (Powell 2014, p. 158), it also allows for circumventing minimum wage regulations or to save labor costs during slack time. As a recent study of the garment industry in five developing countries reveals, in the piece work system management tends to set the “piece rates” too low so that workers are unable to make their living on the required daily minimum of the work day (Borino 2018). Although in advanced economies piece work pay in industry is less common it has become a problem in the service industry. As Warhurst et al. (2008) show with the example of London room attendants, management has increased the workload per hour when national minimum wages have been introduced in UK in 1999 (see also Adam-Smith 2003). Thus, room attendants have been forced to work overtime to accomplish their workload according to the new work specifications. Since room attendants are mostly isolated working migrant workers, they are not familiar with the legal regulations of their host country (McDowell et al. 2009). As Zuberi (2011) in a study about hospital support workers in Vancouver, hired by subcontracting firms delivering cleaning and other services to hospitals, shows, the working conditions in the service industry are shaped mainly by lacking governmental regulations and insufficient monitoring. As in the case of the London room attendants the relative isolation of service workers, low language skills and the “invisibility” of their work are major causes which enable exploitative labor conditions.
Another point mentioned in the early discussion concerns the fragmentation of labor which allows for employing low-skilled workers for the less qualified work and better-paid and higher qualified workers for the more demanding “fine” work (Potter 1889; Schloss 1889a). Work fragmentation enables that workers can be split in different, isolated groups which can kept separately and thus neither are informed about the working conditions and wage modalities of their co-workers nor able to organize (Booth 1889; Wadlin 1892; Lee 1892; Auten 1901; Schloss 1911). Such fragmentation of workforce is less problematic in the context of organized fabric work but becomes problematic in the context of migrant workers. Especially posted workers are kept separately from the domestic workforce and thus left in uncertainty about the working conditions and wage-levels of their co-workers (Brentsen 2015). As Fellini et al. (2007) show work fragmentation in the construction industry allows it to pass on the work to various foreign subcontractors which bring in workers from abroad. Working in such isolated teams makes it difficult to organize, and there is empirical evidence that this is a strategy used by the employers to limit interaction of low-paid workers with other groups (Lever and Milbourne 2017). As an example from Great Britain shows, Hungarian workers, brought in as posted workers, received less than the half of the official wages (Meardi et al. 2012). Similar examples have been found for Polish masons working in Finland (Lillie and Wagner 2015). Since European legislation allows that posted workers are employed by a firm in the country of origin and paid and insured according to the domestic standards they often are ignorant about the labor regulations in their host countries and willing to accept lower wages and social security standards.
It has been mentioned as one of the main characteristics that such system depends on a steadily growing number of “fresh” workers, coming either as immigrants from other countries or from the rural districts to the large cities (Potter 1888; 1890; Hobson 1896; p. 91; Willoughby 1900). These workers are willing to accept poor living conditions either because life before has been even worse or because they see this as an early stage of their way to a better life (Wadlin 1892; Willoughby 1900). This is true till today. Exploitative labor conditions are found in industries where ignorant migrants can be hired or foreign workforce unfamiliar with local labor standards can be brought into a country. This happens not only in less developed countries; also the US labor market is fed by immigrant workers. Thus, as Martin et al. (2007, p. 155) have put it, in the US “migrant laborers increasingly have become the ‘workers of choice’ for employers seeking workers below-market rates of pay”, particularly in agricultural production, landscaping, warehousing or the hospitality sector. The “invisibility” of migrant workers in society makes it easy to hide the economic and social conditions under which they have to work (Aguiar 2006; Lever and Milbourne 2017). Most of us are unaware about migrant workers cleaning hotel rooms, working in health and elderly care or working for parcel services. Subcontracting, agency work and occupation in the informal sector makes it difficult to bring these jobs under national labor regulations (Martin et al. 2007). Since migrant workers can be sent back at any time for any reason and can be replaced easily, this imposes additional pressure on them to accept even unfavorable working conditions as “the best option they have in an unfair world” (Lillie and Wagner 2015, p. 172).
This short analysis might explain why sweatshop labor even today is not a phenomenon solely of less-developed countries and can be found only in some isolated industries. It is a prevalent phenomenon and occurs when several social and political conditions are fulfilled. Especially outsourcing of services and subcontracting exacerbates the problem of low pay and lacking social security. If legal regulations allow successive subcontracting of the same task, as practiced in the construction industry, this leads to permanent decreasing wages whereby the intermediate companies do little work themselves but mainly manage subcontracts with other companies or self-employed workers (Harvey 2003, pp. 195–197; Haidinger 2015). If regular work inspection concerning working conditions, safety standards and working hours is missing, steadily increasing workloads, unpaid overtime and dangerous working conditions become more likely (Miller 2003). Although unionization might help to improve working and payment conditions (e.g., Berntsen 2015; Lillie and Wagner 2015; Meardi et al. 2012), the separation of the workforce, fragmented work places, limited language skills, temporary employment, fear of dismissal and ignorance of the workers about their rights, in general, make it difficult to organize migrant workers.
Thus, it seems that it is less the stage of economic development but these social, political and legal conditions which enable the exploitation of less educated workforce and allows it to take advantage from their vulnerability. Even though economists argue that there is a demand of cheap labor, particularly in sectors of low productivity, such demand may legitimize low pay but it does not legitimize inhumane working conditions and the violation of workers’ rights.
Characteristics of the sweating system and responsibilities to remedy
Outsourcing, subcontracting, and public procurement practices disguise labor conditions
Responsibility of the legislator to develop fair procurement systems and of governmental agencies to monitor working conditions
The remuneration system allows for reducing wages by increasing the workload per hour
Responsibility of the legislator to enact minimum wage regulations and of governmental agencies to control compliance
Unregulated competition among subcontractors intensifies the “race to the bottom”
Responsibility of legislator to enforce transparency; responsibility of the customers and employers to avoid illegal practices
Isolated, unorganized and low skilled workers are often ignorant about their workers’ rights
Responsibility of unions to inform workers about their rights; responsibility of employers to grant these rights
Fragmentation of labor
fragmentation of labor allows for creating low payed workplaces at the bottom of the “job-hierarchy”
responsibility of the legislator and of the employers to define professional requirements and to offer vocational training which allow higher remuneration
Influx of fresh workers
Influx of immigrant workers hinders amalgamation of trade unions and collective bargaining
Responsibility of employees and employers to regulate and monitor labor conditions and payment modalities in their respective industries
Willingness to accept poor working conditions
Immigrant workers are willing to accept poor working conditions and put pressure on established workforce
Responsibility of the employers not to take advantage from the plight and ignorance of immigrant workers by offering fair working conditions
This shows that the fight against sweatshop labor must be seen also as a societal task where different actors have to contribute. While governments, customers, employers, employees and consumers certainly are the most relevant parties in this fight against sweatshop labor, they are not the only ones. Enhancing education systems, making workers’ rights more transparent, creating public awareness about sweated labor and other measures can be seen as additional important steps which may contribute to the abolishment of sweated labor.
Comparing the contemporary discussion with the 19th century debate on sweated labor reveals that the arguments used in both debates have changed only slightly. Although sweated labor today has partially moved from industrialized to developing countries, the characteristics of sweated labor have not changed. Admittedly, today it is not only the immigration of low-skilled workers, willing to work under poor working conditions in the hope to improve their living conditions in the future, but it is also the work that has been moved to less developed countries with its low-skilled and poor-paid workforce. However, main characteristics like high competitive environment, a system of subcontractors, seasonal variation of the workload accompanied with long hours of overtime, and wages shortly above the poverty line are the main characteristics of sweated labor till today. And also the remedies recommended to abolish sweated labor have changed only marginally: More effective control of the working conditions, improving sanitary conditions at the production sites as well as in the laborers’ lodgings, approval of unions and collective bargaining, labeling products which are produced under fair working conditions and boycotting products which are not.
However, the main focus of the contemporary discussion mainly concerns sweating as an industrial system and addresses the obligations of producers, buyers and consumers. Conversely, it was the hallmark of the 19th century discussion to take a broader perspective and to see sweatshop labor not only as an economic but also as a social and a political problem which is influenced by various factors. Thus, sweatshop labor is not simply caused by an “iron law of wages”, but it is supported and maintained by factors outside the economic system and concerns, for instance, also the legal requirements of posted work, the modalities of public procurement or the legally permissible terms of the subcontracting system. It is more common in the informal sector where the degree of unionization is low, and it is fostered by the possibility to keep migrant workers separated from their fellow-workers and ignorant about their rights. It is also supported by the fact that sweated labor in most cases occurs hidden from the public as it is the case in the service or construction industry. Thus, the economic explanations of the necessity of sweated labor as the only possibility for the low-skilled poor to find employment and the best choice they have sound quite cynical—then as now. It is the mantra of neoclassical economists that legally required minimum wages and health and safety regulations would increase labor costs and, thus, cause unemployment. However, such view is rejected by Meyers (2004, p. 330) who notes: “The thought that companies cannot raise the wages of sweatshop workers seems to assume that companies pay the workers as much as they can without significantly hurting profits. But in fact, on the contrary, they pay workers as little as they can get them to work for…”.
In the recent sweatshop debate, the strict focus on moral arguments against and economic arguments in favor of sweatshop labor has detracted from the analysis of the social preconditions which enable sweating. It is one of the merits of the 19th century discussion to take a broader view and to analyze sweatshop labor not as an industrial system but as a social phenomenon. In this vein, the findings from the 19th century debate, as outlined above, may be a useful frame to analyze sweatshop labor from a broader perspective. To abolish exploitative labor conditions, therefore, various actors are called to action. Strict governmental regulations and their rigid enforcement may help to uphold health and safety standards and protect workers from exploitation. Unions and workers councils may facilitate collective bargaining and, even more important, help to create transparency with regard to wages and social security standards. New regulations concerning posted work, subcontracting and the modalities of public procurement would be important steps to protect workers from exploitation. Additional requirements are state investments in education programs and information about workers’ rights. Although there is no denying that consumers also bear their share of responsibility for the maintenance of the sweating system, experience shows that the consumers are either ignorant about sweatshop conditions or unwilling to recognize their responsibilities. It has been one of the strengths of the 19th century debate to have a closer look at these social conditions enabling sweatshop labor. This analysis might be helpful for detecting sweatshop labor conditions also today. Thus, much more empirical work has to be done to analyze the social, political and legal conditions that enable “sweated industries” also in advanced economies and to find remedies against exploitative working conditions in the respective sectors. If sweatshops are not seen as a specific industrial system which occurs in developing or less developed countries or in specific industries, but as a social phenomenon that is caused by several factors, this would open the pathway to a more nuanced understanding of sweatshop labor and its causes.
Thus, for instance, in the nail and chain making industry or furniture manufacturing but sometimes also in the boot making sector the work was not carried out at the lodging of the workers or the sweater, but the workmen had to rent “a seat” in one of the small premises to accomplish their work (Schloss 1889a; Aves 1889; Lee 1892).
In fact also other wage systems did exist. If workers were not paid on basis of piece work they were paid weekly on the basis of their “day work”. However by defining ever greater quantities of work as standard of what should be accomplished within 1 day the workers had only three opportunities: Either not to accomplish their daily minimum, which means that they have been paid not for a “whole day’s work”, or to work excessive overtime to make their daily earnings, or to take the remaining work at home and accomplish it with the help of their families (Potter 1889; Auten 1901).
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Research Involving Human and Animals Rights
This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.
- Aguiar, L. L. M. (2004). Resisting neoliberalism in Vancouver: An uphill struggle for cleaners. Social Justice,31(3), 105–129.Google Scholar
- Argyle, J. (1889). Silk manufacture. In C. Booth (Ed.), Labour and life of the people in 9 vols, East London (Vol. 1, pp. 389–405). London: Williams & Norgate.Google Scholar
- Arnold, D. G. (2010). Working conditions: Safety and sweatshops. In G. G. Brenkert & T. L. Beauchamp (Eds.), The oxford handbook of business ethics (pp. 628–653). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Aves, E. (1889). The furniture trade. In C. Booth (Ed.), Labour and life of the people in 9 vols: East London (Vol. 1, pp. 309–369). London: Williams & Norgate.Google Scholar
- Banks, L. A. (1893). White slaves. Or the oppression of the worthy poor. Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard.Google Scholar
- Blanc, L. (1848). Organisation du travail. Paris: Bureau de la Société de l’industrie fraternelle.Google Scholar
- Booth, C. (1889). Sweating. In C. Booth (Ed.), Labour and life of the people in 9 vols: East London (Vol. 1, pp. 481–500). London: Williams & Norgate.Google Scholar
- Borino, F. (2018). Piece rate pay and working conditions in the export garment sector. ILO Discussion Paper No. 28. International Labour Office: Geneva.Google Scholar
- bpb. (2018). Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung: Vor fünf Jahren: Textilfabrik Rana Plaza in Bangladesch eingestürzt. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://www.bpb.de/politik/hintergrund-aktuell/268127/textilindustrie-bangladesch.
- Buhse, F. et al. (2018). Paketfahrer: Zum Teil mafiöse Strukturen. NDR. Retrieved April 12, 2019, from https://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/schleswig-holstein/Paketfahrer-Zum-Teil-mafioese-Strukturen,subunternehmer104.html.
- Carlyle, T. (1843). Past and present. London: Chapman and Hall.Google Scholar
- Collet, C. E. (1889). Women’s work. In C. Booth (Ed.), Labour and life of the people in 9 vols: East London (Vol. 1, pp. 406–477). London: Williams & Norgate.Google Scholar
- Daniel, A. S. (1892). Conditions of the labor of women and children. Journal of Social Science,30, 73–85.Google Scholar
- Fawcett, H. (1884). Labour and wages. London: McMillan and Co.Google Scholar
- Fox, S. N. (1889). Tobacco workers. In C. Booth (Ed.), Labour and life of the people in 9 vols: East London (Vol. 1, pp. 370–388). London: Williams & Norgate.Google Scholar
- Haidinger, B. (2015). Organizing periphal workers in parcel delivery and postal services. In J. Drahokoupil (Ed.), The outsourcing challenge: Organizing workers across fragmented production networks (pp. 199–216). Brussels: ETUI.Google Scholar
- Harvey, M. (2003). Privatisation, fragmentation and inflexible flexibilization in the UK construction industry. In G. Bosch & P. Philips (Eds.), Building chaos: An international comparison of deregulation in the construction industry (pp. 188–209). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Helps, A. (1845). The claims of labour—an essay on the duties of the employers to the employed. London: William Pickering.Google Scholar
- Herod, A., & Aguiar, L. L. M. (2006). Introduction: Cleaners and the dirty work of neoliberalism. In L. L. M. Aguiar & A. Herod (Eds.), The dirty work of neoliberalism: Cleaners in the global economy (pp. 1–10). Malden, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
- Hicks, W. L. (1892). The sweating system. Journal of Social Science,30, 103–104.Google Scholar
- Hobson, J. A. (1896). Problems of poverty. London: Methuen & Co.Google Scholar
- Hood, T. (1843). The song of the shirt. Punch, Dec. (Reprint in Poems of Thomas hood, (Vol. 1, pp. 299–301), by A. Ainger, Ed., 1897, London: Macmillen & Co.).Google Scholar
- Jones, R. (1859). In W. Whewell (Ed.) Lectures and tracts on political economy. London: John Murray.Google Scholar
- Kingsley, C. (1850). Cheap Clothes and Nasty [first published under alias Parson Lot]. Cambridge: Macmillan & Co.Google Scholar
- Kunze, A. (2014). Die Schlachtordnung. Zeit Online. Retrieved April 27, 2019, from https://www.zeit.de/2014/51/schlachthof-niedersachsen-fleischwirtschaft-ausbeutung-arbeiter/komplettansicht?print.
- Labowitz, S., & Baumann-Pauly, D. (2014). Business as usual is not an option. Supply chains and sourcing after Rana Plaza. NYU stern center for business and human rights. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from: https://www.stern.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/assets/documents/con_047408.pdf.
- Lampart, D. H. (2019). Vom Bau lernen. Zeit online. Retrieved April 30, 2019, from https://www.zeit.de/2019/12/paketdienste-dhl-hermes-subunternehmen-arbeitsbedingungen.
- Lee, J. (1892). The sweating system. Journal of Social Science,30, 105–137.Google Scholar
- Lillie, N., & Wagner, I. (2015). Subcontracting, insecurity and posted work: Evidence from construction, meat processing, and ship building. In J. Drahokoupil (Ed.), The outsourcing challenge: Organizing workers Across fragmented production networks (pp. 157–174). Brussels: ETUI.Google Scholar
- Longe, F. D. (1866). The wage-fund theory. (Reprint by J. D. Hollander, Ed., 1904. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press).Google Scholar
- M’Culloch, J. R. (1870). Principles of political economy. London: Alex Murray and Sons.Google Scholar
- Malthus, T. R. (1999). An essay on the principle of population (1798). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Massachusetts Law. (1891). An act to prevent the manufacture and sale of clothing made in unhealthy places. Chapter 357, Acts of 1891, as amended by Chapter 296, Acts of 1892.Google Scholar
- Mayhew, H. (1981a). The morning chronicle survey of labour and the poor, 6 vols. Sussex: Caliban Books, vol. 2, letters XXVII and XXVIII.Google Scholar
- Mayhew, H. (1981b). The morning chronicle survey of labour and the poor, 6 vols. Sussex: Caliban Books, vol. 1, letter VII.Google Scholar
- Mill, J. S. (2006a). Principles of political economy. Collected Works (Vol. 2 & 3). Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.Google Scholar
- Mill, J. S. (2006b). Thornton on labour and its claims. Collected Works (Vol. 5). Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.Google Scholar
- National anti-sweating league. (1907). Report of conference on a minimum wage, Held at the Guildhall, London. London: Co-operative Printing Society.Google Scholar
- Neu, M. (2018). Just liberal violence—sweatshops, torture, war. London: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
- New York Law. (1892). An act to preserve the public health and to regulate the manufacture and sale of clothing, wearing apparel, and other articles in this state. Chapter 655, Acts of 1892.Google Scholar
- Newman, S. P. (1835). Elements of political economy. New York, NY: Gould and Newman.Google Scholar
- Newman, F. W. (1851). Lectures on political economy. London: John Chapman.Google Scholar
- Perry, A. L. (1869). Elements of political economy. New York, NY: Charles Schibner and Company.Google Scholar
- Potter, B. (1888). East London labour. The Nineteenth Century,24(138), 161–183.Google Scholar
- Potter, B. (1889). Tailoring. In C. Booth (Ed.), Labour and Life of the People in 9 vols: East London (Vol. 1, pp. 209–240). London: Williams & Norgate.Google Scholar
- Potter, B. (1890). The Lords and the sweating system. The Nineteenth Century,27(160), 885–905.Google Scholar
- Report. (1888a). First report from the select committee of the house of lords on the sweating system. 30th July 1888. London: Henry Hansard and Son.Google Scholar
- Report. (1888b). Second report from the select committee of the house of lords on the sweating system. 18th December 1888. London: Henry Hansard and Son.Google Scholar
- Report. (1889a). Third report from the select committee of the house of lords on the sweating system. 2nd May 1889. London: Henry Hansard and Son.Google Scholar
- Report. (1889b). Fourth report from the select committee of the house of lords on the sweating system. 5th August 1889. London: Henry Hansard and Son.Google Scholar
- Report. (1890). Fifth report from the select committee of the house of lords on the sweating system. 28th April 1890. London: Henry Hansard and Son.Google Scholar
- Report. (1896). Report upon the sweating system in Canada. Ottawa: S. E. Dawson.Google Scholar
- Ricardo, D. (2004). On the principles of political economy, and taxation. Collected works (Vol. 1). Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.Google Scholar
- Robinson, D. (1829). Political economy No. 1, in Blackwoods magazine (Vol. 26, pp. 510–523). (originally signed as “One of the Old School”).Google Scholar
- Schaer, C. (2018). The dark side of Germany’s online shopping boom. Handelsblatt today. Retrieved April 12, 2019, from https://www.handelsblatt.com/today/companies/courier-rights-the-dark-side-of-germanys-online-shopping-boom/23694948.html?ticket=ST-512464-rksmLbvYvbtbf6hnmbrc-ap6.
- Schloss, D. G. (1889a). Boot making. In C. Booth (Ed.), Labour and life of the people in 9 vols: East London (Vol. 1, pp. 241–308). London: Williams & Norgate.Google Scholar
- Schloss, D. G. (1889b). What is the “sweating system”. Charity Organization Review,5(50), 49–64.Google Scholar
- Schloss, D. F. (1892a). The present position of the “sweating system” question in the United Kingdom. Economic Review,2(4), 452–459.Google Scholar
- Schloss, D. F. (1892b). The “sweating system” in the United Kingdom. Journal of Social Science,30, 65–72.Google Scholar
- Schloss, D. F. (1911). Sweating system. In Encyclopaedia britannica, 29 vol., (Vol. 26, pp. 187–188). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Scrope, G. J. D. (1831). Review of R. Jones’ essay on the distribution of wealth and the sources of taxation. Quarterly Review,46, 81–117.Google Scholar
- Scrope, G. J. D. (1833). Principles of political economy. London: Longman et al.Google Scholar
- Senior, N. W. (1830). Three lectures on the rate of wages. London: John Murray.Google Scholar
- Senior, N. W. (1858). Political economy. London: Richard Griffin and Company.Google Scholar
- Shorrocks, P. (1877). The Sweating System. In P. Shorrocks (Ed.), How contagion and infection are spread through the sweating system in the tailoring trade (pp. 3–11). Manchester: Cooperative Printing Society.Google Scholar
- The Anti-Tenement House League. (1894). History and report of the anti-tenement house league. Boston, MA: A.T. Bliss & Co.Google Scholar
- The Fabian Society. (1894a). A plan of campaign for labor. Fabian Tract No. 49. London: The Fabian Society.Google Scholar
- The Fabian Society. (1894b). Sweating: Its causes and remedy. Fabian Tract No. 50. London: The Fabian Society.Google Scholar
- Thornton, W. (1869). On Labour—its wrongful claims and rightful dues, its actual present and its possible future. London: Macmillan & Co.Google Scholar
- Wadlin, H. G. (1892). The sweating system in Massachusetts. Journal of Social Science,30, 86–102.Google Scholar
- Walker, F. A. (1876). The wages question—wages and the wages class. London: Macmillan & Co.Google Scholar
- Whewell, W. (1831). Mathematical exposition of some of the leading doctrines in Mr. Ricardo’s “Principles of political economy and taxation. Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society,4, 155–198.Google Scholar
- Willoughby, W. F. (1900). Regulation of the sweating system. Boston, MA: Wright and Potter Company.Google Scholar