Blacks and Hispanics More Likely Than Whites to Work in Sweatshops
Are Blacks and Hispanics More Likely Than Whites to Work in Sweatshops? Among the definitions the Oxford English Dictionary gives for sweating are: ‘‘the practice of doing piecework overtime,’’ and ‘‘the practice of exacting hard work from employees for low wages, especially under a middleman by sub-contract.’’ These features—piecework and working for a contractor—continue to define contemporary usage of the term and betray its origins in the garment and shoemaking industries of the mid-nineteenth century. Then, as in the early twenty-first century, it was the most vulnerable workers who were ‘‘sweated.’’ That is, it is ethnic, ‘‘racial,’’ or minority immigrants, and mostly women and children, who have worked under these conditions.1)Locking Down an American Workforce Prison Labor as the Past — and Future — of American “Free-Market” Capitalism By Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman
Race and Ethnicity
Blacks, immigrants, and women were regarded as the cheapest and most exploitable workers, and they continue to make up the bulk of the garment workforce in the United States in 2017. The ethnic composition of the workforce in sweatshops varies by location: in Los Angeles, Latino immigrants outnumber Asian immigrants, such as the Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese; whereas in San Francisco it is the Chinese who predominate, and in New York Mexican and Equadorian immigrants have now joined Chinese to form the vast majority of garment sweatshop workers. This type of labor can be “found across broad stretches of the American economy and around the world,” for African-Americans. In Locking Down an American Workforce, “Penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work. The privatization of prisons in recent years has meant the creation of a small army of workers too coerced and right-less to complain.” Disproportionately African-American workers—who found themselves living in economic exile, scrabbling to get by, began showing up in similarly disproportionate numbers in the country’s rapidly expanding prison archipelago. It didn’t take long for corporate America to come to view this as another potential foreign country, full of cheap and subservient labor—and better yet, close by.
These patterns have shifted over time to reflect the changing profile of immigrants in the country. In the early twentieth century, it was Jewish and Italian immigrants who worked in the sweatshops of New York and Los Angeles, and in the 1990s, Mexicans and Chinese replaced the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who worked in New York’s sweatshops in the 1980s. In the face of increased global competitiveness, runaway shops from the unionized Northeast sought new sources of cheap nonunion labor in the South. As a result, black garment workers, who had been incorporated into the southern apparel industry in the 1970s, have seen their work opportunities diminish.
According to scholars Evelyn Blumenberg and Paul Ong, blacks made up 28 percent of the garment labor force in 90s in North Carolina, then the epicenter of the industry in the South, and were an important source of employment for black workers, the large-scale garment production that was typical in the area has rapidly been diminished by capital flight to offshore production sites. Because of import competition, even brand-name manufacturers who had previously sourced to inside shops with union labor began outsourcing to small shops within the United States compromising the education of minority youth.
@DREWDESILVER, senior writer at Pew Research Center, states “Another way of looking at youth employment, or the lack thereof, is by focusing on “NEETs” – that is, young people who are neither employed nor in education or training. Last year, 16.9% of all Americans ages 16 to 29 – or nearly 10.2 million young people – were NEETs. That’s actually a modest improvement: In 2013, the first year for which data are available, there were just over 11 million NEETs in the U.S., or 18.5% of the 16-to-29 population. Our analysis found that in the U.S., the NEET youth population is more female than male (57% to 43%); two-thirds have a high-school education or less, and blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be NEETs.
- Jayati Lal
- Blumenberg, Evelyn, and Paul Ong. 1994. ‘‘Labor Squeeze and Ethnic/Racial Composition in the U.S. Apparel Industry.’’ In Global Production: The Apparel Industry in the Pacific Rim, edited by Edna Bonacich, Lucie Cheng, Norma Chinchilla, Nora Hamilton, and Paul Ong, 309–327. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Bonacich, Edna. 1994. ‘‘Asians in the Los Angeles Garment Industry.’’ In The New Asian Immigration in Los Angeles and Global Restructuring, edited by Paul Ong, Edna Bonacich, and Lucie Cheng, 137–163. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Esbenshade, Jill. 2004. Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
- U.S. General Accounting Office. 1988. ‘‘Sweatshops in the U.S.’’ Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available from http://archive.gao.gov/d17t6/136973.pdf.
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