How sweatshops start

If you beat the dirt long enough, you can find a grey economy contract sewing operation run by immigrants in nearly every US city. Some operations are legal in that they have licensing and follow wage laws and some are a bit fuzzy on the details and may be housed in apartment complexes. Both are similar in that they hide from you but then contractors nearly always do.

Immigrant sewing operations are an easy entry into entrepreneurship for their ownership and preferable for them more so than for you because they do not enjoy the same social benefits of language facility, acquisition to capital and education (while they are often well educated, their credentials are not recognized thus no status is conferred) so they can’t get a job like you can and provide for their families at a level to which they’d like to become (or had been) accustomed. Sewing is a very low entry industry, it’s the first industry any nation develops so it’s ideal for anyone who is disadvantaged.

It starts like so: Fulano decides to take in sewing so they find bits here and there to the point they get a smallish contract from somebody at the craft show level meaning they need to hire someone to help. That is nearly always a family member residing in the same space with whom they share expenses who is similarly unemployed or underemployed. Jointly they agree to split the proceeds most of which goes toward things like rent, groceries, health care, a vehicle and its maintenance and shoes for the kids. They will continue to add head count as the enterprise grows, again all are members of the same family eating from the same table. Business receipts are shared communally and go into the aforementioned household maintenance costs as well as developing the business, buying more machines and equipment etc. As they’re pooling expenses, living quarters and work, no individual family members are drawing pay commensurate to wage laws. You’re entitled to your own opinion but I don’t perceive these family centered, grey economy sewing operations to be morally reprehensible “sweatshops” because each family member is a defacto owner putting in sweat equity the same way you do.

The point at which there arises a conflict is when the family business has grown to the extent that they must face becoming a legal business because they’re too small to hide anymore. They have to plan goals to get a business location and hire more people only now, there’s increasing likelihood they’ll have to hire someone from outside of the family or even, put the younger kids to work.

[An aside on child labor of which context is everything: How many of you have your kids stuff envelopes or make swatch cards after they come home from school? Are you saying this is okay because it takes place in your home but you don’t trust others to be as fair with their kids as you are with yours? I’m not making any pronouncements of good or bad. I’m saying everybody does it and it’s a double standard that we think it’s okay for suburban college educated white women to use their children’s labor (often to keep them busy, out of trouble and out of our hair) but that we think it is not okay for urban immigrant women we hire to use their kids to work for the same reasons, namely to keep them busy, out of trouble and out of their hair. Think about it. I have. No I would not want to hire someone who had their 12 year old sewing on my buttons after school but it’s not a far cry from what many DE moms do themselves.]

The point at which the family centered communally owned business can become a sweatshop is when they take in workers who are not family members. If these workers ask for pay commensurate to the legal minimum wage, the owner can say “you’ll be making more than I do” (true in an absolute but not equitable sense) so they, having the same disadvantages of language and education barriers, may have to accept less pay if they want the work.

I’ve frequently said to avoid the smallest of “corner” sewing shops, that although they are close in proximity and you have the advantage of personal (and personable) contact with the owner, that these are often businesses that farm work out into the community at less than fair wage. Unfortunately, because of the personable nature of relationships in that you align and feel affinity with the owners, it can be a false sense of security for those motivated to domestic fair trade production. Obviously this advisement is not a blanket pronouncement that all small contractors take advantage of their employees but I’ve failed to explain my reasoning in order that you may discern the difference.

When we think of sweatshops, we usually have some fat white rich guy in mind. He’s the one hiring the immigrants and paying them slave wages in less than savory conditions. The reality is, it is more likely that the owner is an immigrant who has hired his or her countrymen, with whom he or she shares language and culture and thus proximity to a underutilized labor pool.

I don’t imagine much of this will help you select a facility, most of you are so grateful to find a contractor that you’re willing to overlook nagging doubts, hoping for the best. You decide however right or wrongly that the operation isn’t a sweatshop based on your friendly and personal relationship with the owner. I can’t tell you what to do (many do not listen anyway) but I’d ask how many workers are family members. If it’s a small shop and most are family members, I’d be less concerned. You have the right to inspect payroll documentation, in many states (and in the court of public opinion) you’re considered at fault if you don’t verify this information. As a practical matter, you could alienate the owner who then wouldn’t take your work. Which is why a larger operation is always a better bet, at least in the US because larger operations are too big to hide from the powers that be. Only problem with larger operations is that they have higher minimums. Such is your so called DE life, always between a rock and a hard place.

I never wrote about any of this before because I never had any empirical evidence to back my long standing observations. This morning though, I found a tangentially related paper written by Roger Waldinger, a distinguished professor at UCLA who has made a career of studying immigrant entrepreneurship. The paper I was reading (before I interrupted myself to write this piece) is called Immigrant Enterprise in the New York Garment Industry (pdf). Contrary to many sociological treatises, it is astute; he understands the nature of the work, the division of labor and the nature of relationships between vested parties in the garment industry. It is also bereft of rhetoric which I personally find repugnant*, a cheap shot. If you make your points clearly and succinctly, you don’t need to decry how horrid or squalid or abusive the situation is. Inflammatory adjectives are a short cut, a lazy way to score points with kindred who share your sensibilities (it alienates everyone else). You make your sympathies and perspectives known by virtue of your topic selection and somewhat distastefully I mention, omission. I’m quite taken with the research. Be sure to read “effects of market structure” on page 63 (pg 4 of the pdf). The paper headings are so academic as to scare off the best of us but the writing makes for effortless reading. Good show.

*…and you did know that the smarter someone becomes, the more they think like economists?

PS. This entry could be better titled as “How contract sewing operations start”.

PPS. I will be keeping a close eye on comments since we’ve gotten unfair and uncharitable comments about immigrants before.

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