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Overseas Sweatshop Abuse Subject of Subcommittee Hearing

On February 14, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce, Trade, and Tourism held a hearing on overseas sweatshop abuses, their impact on American workers, and the need for anti-sweatshop legislation. The hearing also addressed a bill (S. 367) that would prohibit the import, export, and sale of goods made with sweatshop labor.

In his opening statement, Chair Byron Dorgan (D-ND) said, “When manufacturing plants in foreign countries are able to grossly mistreat workers with impunity, our own workers suffer as well.” Sen. Dorgan stated that the movement of the global economy serves as an opportunity for producers to “circle the globe and find the lowest cost of production.” He noted that in many of these cases, producers will employ workers who are paid pennies an hour without the ability to organize themselves.

Ranking Member Jim DeMint (R-SC) said, “One of the best things…going on is the monitoring and certification of plants around the world so that American customers of these products will know who they are doing business with and we can continue to put pressure on companies abroad.” Sen. DeMint then stated, “While there are sweatshops that we need to look at, certainly many jobs have been provided around the world by American companies buying products from all over the world, and we want to make sure that as we attempt to stamp out the bad actors, that we don’t eliminate jobs for many low-income workers around the world by creating undue liability and risk for companies who have products made abroad.”

Beatriz Fuentes, president of the Sintrasplendor union at the Splendor Flowers plantation in Colombia, spoke about the occupational health and safety hazards that are encountered at the plantation. She said, “Flower workers are inadequately protected against occupational hazards. In the greenhouses, we are exposed on a daily basis to highly toxic chemicals, without sufficient protection. We are also exposed to extreme temperatures, and we work long hours doing repetitive tasks. These conditions cause serious health problems, including allergies, respiratory problems, eye problems, spinal problems, and carpal tunnel syndrome.” Speaking on the treatment of women, she said: “It is also common for flower plantations to require female job applicants to take a pregnancy test to demonstrate that they are not pregnant, which is illegal. Or they ask if we are planning on having more children, and if we have had an operation. The management does not do this out of concern that the pregnant women are exposed to the same toxic pesticides as all of the other workers. They do it because they don’t want to pay the maternity leave or the other benefits legally due to pregnant workers.”

Sk Nazma, founder and former president of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), discussed the issues of illegal child labor and rights abuses in garment factories. Highlighting an investigation of the Harvest Rich factory, Ms. Nazma stated that BCWS discovered “scores of children just 11, 12 and 13 years of age working at the Harvest Rich factory. More than 300 to 400 adolescents, 14, 15 and 17 years old, were also illegally employed at Harvest Rich. Under Bangladeshi law, factories are strictly prohibited from hiring anyone under 14 years of age, while adolescent workers between the ages of 14 and 17 can only be employed under special circumstances, and are allowed to work just five hours a day for a maximum of 30 hours per week.” She concluded her testimony by telling the committee about the booming garment industry in Bangladesh. “The garment industry in Bangladesh is booming — Bangladesh sent one billion garments to the U.S. last year — and this would be great news for the poor women garment workers if their legal rights were respected and they earned a wage that would allow them to climb out of misery.”

President and CEO of the Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP) Steven Jesseph spoke about the process that factories must undergo to receive certification. Mr. Jesseph said, “The WRAP certification process involves a lengthy application that must be submitted by the factory seeking to be certified. The application requires the factory to answer detailed questions regarding its practices in areas, such as minimum age of workers, working hours, regular and overtime wages, and health and safety, and more. When the application is complete, an independent monitoring firm then performs a rigorous inspection of the factory to determine if the written information previously submitted is accurate. Frequently, factories do not pass on the first inspection.” Those factories that do not pass are advised on the areas where they did not comply, so that they can “correct them and receive a certification recommendation during a subsequent audit,” he said.

Daniel Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, contended that sweatshop labor conditions in factories are not the result of free trade and globalization. Instead, Mr. Griswold stated, “Trade and globalization are lifting wages and working conditions for hundreds of millions of people in developing countries. The pay and conditions offered in foreign-owned factories are almost always far higher than those offered in the domestic economy. In fact, working for multinational companies that export are almost invariably the best jobs available in poor countries. Those jobs offer poor workers, especially young women, their best opportunity at financial independence and the simple pleasures and dignities of life we take for granted.” With respect to child labor, Mr. Griswold said, “Openness to trade and the growth it brings exert a positive impact on the welfare of children in less developed countries by reducing rates of child labor. The International Labor Organization recently reported that the number of children in the workforce rather than in school worldwide has dropped by 11 percent since its last report in 2002, to about 200 million.”

Also testifying were Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee; James English, on behalf of Leo Gerard United Steelworkers; David Socolow, commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development; and William Jones, chairman of the Cummins-Allison Corporation.

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