What is a Sweatshop?
The word "sweatshop" conjures up many images. First, it brings to mind a hot, stuffy room where hapless workers literally sweat as they toil. Indeed, this association with heat and discomfort goes back to before the turn of the twentieth century. But the term implies much more than that. People have associated the word with a number of factors that give it meaning well beyond the borders of the garment and cigar industries to which it was originally applied. The characteristics most commonly attributed to the sweatshop include:
  • Poor working conditions;
  • Low wages;
  • Long hours;
  • Arbitrary power of the boss over the workers.

Since these qualities can exist in any number of industries, the sweatshop has become a metaphor for all sorts of abuses of the industrial system. And indeed, the Federal Government defines "sweatshop" as any place where an employer violates more than one federal or state labor law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers' compensation, or industry registration.

The structure of the industry was so much part of the definition of a sweatshop that before 1900 people spoke more about the "sweating system" than about the "sweatshop" per se. The term "sweating system," as well as the use of the word "sweat" as a transitive verb, originated in Britain, probably in the 1830s or '40s.

The word "sweatshop" itself was in use by the 1890s and might have been American in origin. While evocative of hard work, harsh discipline and bad conditions, the real meaning of all of these terms lies in their graphic and physical description of the system of exploitation by which small employers, usually contractors, could profit only by extracting every ounce of value from the labor of their employees.

Not all garment factories were sweatshops, but to reformers and those he employed, Harris Levine's dressmaking shop at 97 Orchard Street likely qualified as one. How might Harris Levine have defined "sweatshop"?

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