The Legacy of the Sweatshop
The headlines in the newspapers bear remarkable similarity to those of one hundred years ago: Immigrant workers - now Chinese and Latinos, rather than Jews and Italians - exploited ruthlessly by immigrant bosses; small contractors complaining of being squeezed by the large manufacturers and retailers.
Even some of the actors are the same. The National Consumers' League, for example, calls on buyers to shop responsibly, as local, state, and federal governments debate what to do about the problem. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE!, an amalgam of the ILGWU and the ACTWU, continues to organize garment workers in union shops.
Whether they worked in a tenement shop or a loft factory, for a day or a decade, almost every generation of immigrants to the Lower East Side has been touched by the garment industry. For workers and entrepreneur bosses alike, work in the needle trades was - and continues to be - a fundamental part of the experience of immigrating to America. Newcomers arriving with little English, few job skills, and limited connections turned to the needle trades to find a first foothold in their new country.
Of course, there are some differences. Famous designers and celebrities are now regularly embarrassed by revelations that the products they endorse are made in appalling conditions by workers who receive scandalously low wages.
More significantly, the industry now operates on an international scale, and some of the sweatshops supplying the North American market are in Central America and Asia, as well as in New York and Los Angeles. But the complicated, hierarchical structure of the industry continues to drive down wages and encourage shoestring operations with the minimum of capital investment.