For thousands of garment industry workers in the United States, sewing is a way of life that comes at a high price. Manufacturers and retailers who try to shave nickels and dimes in order to compete with low-cost imports often pay their workers little more than slave wages and pay little heed to workplace safety standards. A 1994 survey of the California garment industry revealed that 51 percent of garment contractors did not pay minimum wage, 68 percent did not pay overtime, and 93 percent did not provide safe work environments.
Similar conditions existed throughout the industry, in major garment centers from Los Angeles to New York City. A 1995 raid on a sweatshop in El Monte, California, provided even more disquieting evidence: immigrants working in virtual servitude, earning less than $1.00 an hour. This state of affairs inspired No Sweat, a tough new anti-sweatshop enforcement approach developed by the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division.
In the past, the Department of Labor relied almost exclusively on complaint-based investigations, depending on a small corps of 800 investigators to chase tips on possible sweatshop activity. No Sweat aims to eradicate sweatshops by going at the problem in a new way. The program, established in 1993, aims to stem the exploitation of garment workers by using a multi-prong strategy of enforcement, recognition, and education that focuses on publicity and cooperation. By soliciting and eliciting the help of retailers and manufacturers, the Department of Labor has been able to expand the number of contractors that it reviews and to selectively target violators and seek redress for garment workers.
Division investigators first began working with manufacturers and retailers to make them aware of the conditions under which some of their clothes were being sewn. Investigators then encouraged accountability through the use of select, high-profile enforcement sweeps and the application of the federal "hot goods" law, which allows the government to obtain a federal injunction against the shipment of goods suspected to have been produced using sweatshop labor. Then, in 1995, the Department of Labor began to publish a "Fashion Trendsetter List," a register of manufacturers and retailers who insist on legal and ethical practices among their contractors and subcontractors.
Polls show that the vast majority of Americans would prefer to pay more for clothes produced under legal and ethical working conditions; therefore, by publicizing both good and bad behavior, No Sweat encourages both cooperation and compliance. And indeed, since the establishment of No Sweat, many retailers and manufacturers have indeed agreed to monitor conditions in their own garment factories. No Sweat has also been able to assist garment workers directly: from 1993 to 1996, the Department of Labor was about to collect $8.4 million in back wages for more than 29,000 garment workers. By focusing on top-down strategies and by publicizing its efforts and findings, the Department of Labor has increased the costs incurred by companies that rely on sweatshop labor and improved standards of life and opportunity for the more than one million workers in America's garment industry.