Previously published in Examiner
1820 – 1880 – The term sweatshop was originally used in the garment industry though any factory exhibiting the same conditions would be latter known as a sweatshop as well.
Since sewing had always been a skill that American women acquired, it would make sense that women seamstresses would seek work in an area they were very familiar with. The term cottage industry was given to women who worked from home and were paid by the piece. Women sewed every single piece of clothing worn by any American anywhere. Since they were paid by the piece and not by the hour, it was long and laborious work and women would work up to 16 hours a day trying to make a substandard pay. Nevertheless it was better than nothing at all.
To add insult to injury not only were they paid very little for their work, employers would scrutinize the work and reject many pieces, or they just would not pay the workers at all.
1880 – 1940 – The Tenement Sweatshop – During this period of time immigrant workers often organized sweatshops in tenement buildings where people would come into to work and sweat over the sewing machines for low pay and long hours. The conditions were atrocious but the immigrants needed the work. Poor health and disease ran rampant in these businesses.
1940 – to present day – Sweatshops resurfaced in America around the 1960’s, this was due to the rising global demand in the garment industry and the rising immigrant population. The focus as usual was to get as much work out of desperate workers for as low a wage that you could get away with. These sweatshops were notorious for breaking labor codes.
Sexual abuse, verbal abuse, low wages, long hours, lack of breaks including bathroom breaks, and unreasonable working conditions still plagued sweatshop workers in America especially among the immigrant population.
Do not think that the sweatshops were a piece of history long forgotten. Women in America are still facing some or all of these conditions every day.
To be continued
For more information on the Montreal needle trade and the horrendous sweatshop situation in Montreal
Centre des Travailleurs et Travailleuses Immigrants / Immigrant Workers Centre (CTI-IWC)