Gemma Young
Tutor: Judith Meiklejohn

Sweatshop Worker Sets Herself on Fire to Protest Working Conditions – The Argentina Independent | The Argentina Independent
An employee from textile factory Elementos, in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Pompeya, set herself on fire yesterday morning to protest against “mistreatment” by her employers, and remains admitted at the Pena Hospital.

Cultural Artefact
This confronting article is a rude awakening to a drastic measure taken by one sweatshop worker standing up for her and her co-workers rights. One person was prepared to physically harm herself to protest against mistreatment, this is a large indicator that there is a serious problem in the sweatshop industry and that sweatshop labour is no joke. As sweatshops heavily occur throughout third world and developing countries many people in the first world countries are not aware of how serious this ever-developing issue is.

Public Health Issue
Sweatshops workers are exposed to horrible working conditions and this in turn affects not only their physical health but also mental health and quality of life. Throughout the sweatshop factories the workers endure horrific working conditions including pay far below minimum wage, long working hours, abuse and mistreatment,as well as many health and safety hazards. Basically their human rights are violated on a daily basis. Due to these terrible working conditions there are a large number of work related injuries and fatalities occurring constantly. These harsh conditions sweatshops workers endure have a large effect on their health quality and many of them have no access to any form of health care, clearly diminishing their health and quality of life.

Literature Review
Sweatshops are a product of the global economy and so called ‘free trade’. Since the rise of globalisation there has been a significant rise in inequality and unfair labour, specifically throughout the third world countries. Critics claim that ‘globalisation is the cause of the financial collapse, growing inequality, unfair trade and insecurity (Naím, 2009)’. Arnold and Hartman (2006) criticise economists by saying ‘Defenders of sweatshops typically do not distinguish between issues such as health and safety conditions in the factories, the number of working hours of employees, compliance with local labour laws, wages and benefits. Indeed, they appear to assume that improvements in any one of these areas will result in inevitable and dire consequences for workers. However, these assumptions are unwarranted.’ ‘The increasing power of large transnational corporations and international institutions to determine the labour policy agenda has led to a disempowerment of workers, unions, and those seeking work and a grow in health-damaging working arrangements and conditions (EMCONET, 2007).’

Low Wages and Long Working Hours
Sweatshop labour is often described as self-evidently exploitative and immoral (Van Natta, 1995). This is due to the long working hours they endure as well as their poor wages. Sweatshop wages are considered low by U.S standards but compared with the average standard of living in these countries they are average. According to the International Labour Rights Forum (2012), in many factories it is often reported by workers that there is non-payment of minimum wage, high production quotas that often require long working hours everyday, discrimination against workers that are part of a union as well as training by factory management on how to lie to inspectors that come to the factory. The War on Want organisation (2013) who fight global poverty state that of the 482 million people that live in China, 36% of the population live on less that $2 a day. Approximately 150 million internal migrant workers in China do not receive any state benefits or protection and are forced into high poverty areas. In the world, there are 487 million people who do not earn enough to lift themselves and their families above the US$ 1/day poverty line and 1.3 billion workers do not earn above US$ 2/day (ILO, 2008). Table 1 shows the average hourly apparel worker’s wages. In Bangladesh the wages are as low as US $0.13 per hour.


According to the Do Something Organisation (2013) sweatshop workers work 60-80 hours per week. A study conducted in Finland showed that working long hours can have a negative effect on cognitive function and can also result in physical diseases, sleep disturbances and health risks (Virtanen, et al., 2009). Akinori Nakata conducted a study in 2011 that found participants working more than 8-10 hours per day, with less than 6 hours of sleep per day were 97% more likely to be depressed than participants working 6-8 hours per day and sleeping more than 6 hours per day. While this data does not specifically relate to sweatshop workers, it can still be applied to them and it is evident that the long hours they undergo puts their health at risk.

Working Conditions, Workplace Health and Safety & Mistreatment
The horrific and life threating conditions that sweatshop factory workers suffer are becoming more known. It is clear that they suffer heavy mistreatment but some of the workplace health and safety issues are appalling. A 2010 study by Berik and van der Meulen Rodgers identified some violations in factories to include the insufficiency of fire safety equipment, training, first aid kits and procedures, toilet facilities and protective clothing. They also discovered sweatshop operation in buildings intended for residential living which led to numerous fires and collapses. Beyond this, Berik and van der Meulen Rodgers noted that the workers were also coping with harassment. This generally involved forms of verbal abuse and the inability to meet production targets. Harassment can cause both physiological and psychological harm to the recipient which may be suffered long term. According to Arnold and Hartman (2006), workers in these factories are vulnerable to workplace hazards such as repetitive motion injuries, exposure to toxic chemicals, exposure to airborne pollutants such as fabric particles, exposure to excessive noise pollution, malfunctioning machinery and workplace fires. Work related fatalities through hazardous exposures remain a serious problem according to the International Labour Organisation (2009). In 2009 alone in China, approximately one million workers suffered industrial injuries and about 20 000 were victims of occupational disease (Sweatshops in China, 2013).

It is evident from these working conditions that they can affect ones quality of health. In a report done by the World Health Organisation in 2008, it was discovered that working conditions affect health and healthy quality; poor work quality can also affect mental health almost as much as loss of work; stress at work is associated with a 50% excess risk of coronary heart disease and there is constant evidence that high job demand, low control and effort-reward imbalance are risk factors for mental and physical health problems. Sweatshop workers are also prevented from forming unions. In a lot of sweatshops unions are illegal and workers who try to form them are beaten, thrown in jail, blacklisted and even sometimes killed (The FTAA and the Scourge of Sweatshops, 2013).

There are a large number of fatalities that occur throughout the sweatshop factories. These are due to poor machinery, a lack of safety equipment, unsafe buildings and a non-compliance with workplace health and safety policies. On November 24, 2012 in Bangladesh at the Tazreen factory there was a devastating fire. 112 were pronounced dead and many were injured. When the fire alarms first began going off the workers were instructed by managers to ignore them. By time the workers realised they needed to get out, many were trapped inside as the gates were locked and the fire extinguishers didn’t work as they were dummy’s and meant to just ‘impress the inspectors’. This is just one example of a tragic event out of many that could have been avoided if factories complied with the laws. In Figure 2 the number of deaths from workplace exposure to dangerous substances in different countries and regions can be seen. Arnold and Hartman (2006) state that improvements such as industrial quality exhaust systems, plumbing to provide water for the comfort of the work, appropriate equipment for handling toxic chemicals, canteens and health clinics for large factories could help improve many health and safety factors in factories.

Figure 2: Number of deaths from workplace exposure to dangerous substances in different countries and regions.

Cultural and Social Analysis
Throughout our vast developing global economy it is evident that there are large divisions between the social classes. Karl Marx developed this idea of these classes; they were divided into the working class and the ruling class. Today in sweatshops the workers are stripped of all forms of agency, as they are bound by rules and regulations by their factories. In these developing countries where sweatshops are common, sweatshop labour has grown to be a part of their culture (Sweatshops, 2013). These workers all have very low socio-economic status and working in the sweatshop factories is seen as their only option. Marx also mentions how workers working for the bourgeoisie often suffered alienation and exploitation (Sweatshops, 2013). ‘He named four types of alienation which are: alienation from the process of work, the object of production, from other workers and from species-being, meaning oneself (Sweatshops, 2013).’ Sweatshop workers are exploited and alienated on an everyday basis and it is clear that the bourgeoisie, which these days are the large corporations, have all the power over the working class.

In order to improve these horrendous working conditions that sweatshop workers endure, there needs to be a global change. It is important to gather worldwide awareness about the issue of sweatshops. Although the wages need to be investigated and changed, wages should not be the sole focus. There needs to be a high priority focus on the living and work environments along with the workplace health and safety of sweatshops. According to the American Co-op, what workers want is a living wage, education and the right to self- determination. They believe that sweatshops will cease to exist if these factors are met. ‘Together, workers, activists, and consumers have determined that the following elements are key to ending sweatshops: Full Public Disclosure – Companies must disclose the treatment and pay of workers and how and where products were made; Accountability – Full public disclosure must be backed with independent monitoring of working conditions and pay;Responsible Action – Violations discovered through independent monitoring must be corrected in a way that protects workers and their jobs. This includes paying for education for child workers found in factories and paying parents a living wage(Co-op America, 2004).’ The Multi-National Companies that are taking over globally need to begin taking responsibility for their own decisions in fair trade. Ruddell (2006) states that ‘while the government must regulate and legislate to ensure a level playing field, companies must be more responsive to public concerns and take responsibility for their own action.’

Many more people these days are becoming more aware of the ever-growing sweatshop problem. While individually people may not be able to make a huge change, findings from various polls show that ‘consumers are concerned about sweatshops and the use of child labor and may be willing to pay a premium for assurances that their products are ethically produced (Ruddell, 2006).’ Many communities are also forming Anti-Sweatshop campaigns, this is also known as the Anti-Sweatshop Movement which the International Labour Rights Forum states is achieving gains overseas. These campaigns have taken different forms, including: direct pressure to change legislation in developing countries, pressure on firms, newspaper campaigns, and grassroots organizing. Activists target multinational firms in the textiles, footwear, and apparel sectors and help spread consumer boycotts throughout college campuses (Harrison & Scorse, 2010).
As more people continue to become aware of the global sweatshop problem, more companies are factories will be forced to ensure better workplace health and safety as well as higher wages and improved worker rights.

Analysis of the artefact and your own learning reflections

The cultural artefact is a harsh realisation of the horrific conditions that sweatshop workers endure on a daily basis. One person was prepared to stand up for hers and her co-workers rights as they continued to be constantly violated. Although a drastic measure, it helps to support the argument that sweatshop workers suffer terrible mistreatment and their health and safety are constantly questionable. To me, this artefact represents how irresponsible the companies are that continue to have their products produced in these unsafe factories. Although majority of these companies are aware of these conditions they choose to stay ignorant to the very fact. Personally I was aware of a lot of the conditions of factories and the mistreatment occurring but after deep research I’ve learnt just how terrible this problem is becoming. I have learnt that while the wages these workers are paid are in fact low, the terrible health and safety conditions and mistreatment that occurs in these factories is in fact a lot worse, putting their lives at risk daily. For me it’s disappointing to know that the largest and wealthiest companies for example Nike are still using sweatshops. After thoroughly researching this topic I am a lot more aware of the products I buy. I am constantly thinking about where these products were made and where possible will not purchase sweatshop products, no matter how much of a ‘bargain’ they are. I believe this topic will constantly stay with me and I will forever be conscious of the products I purchase.


Arnold, D. G., & Hartman, L. P. (2006, August). Workers Rights and Low Wage Industrialisation: How to Avoid Sweatshops. Human Rights Quarterly, 28(3), 676-700,798-799. Retrieved from

Closing the Gap in a Generation. (2013). Retrieved from World Health Organisation:

Co-op America. (2004). Guide to Ending Sweatshops 5th Edition. Washington : Co-op America.

EMCONET. (2007). Employment conditions and health inequalities. Final report of the employment conditions knowledge network of the comission on social determinants of health. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

Harrison, A., & Scorse, J. (2010, March). Multinationals and Anti-Sweatshop Activism. The American Economic Review, 100(1), 247-273. doi:
International Labour Rights Forum. (2012). Retrieved from

Meyers, C. D. (2007, November 14). Moral Duty, Individual Responsibility, and Sweatshops Exploitation. Journal of Social Philosophy, 38(4), 620-626. doi:10.1111/j 1467.9833.2007.00402.x

Naím, M. (2009, April). Globalization. Foreign Policy(171), 28-30,32,34. Retrieved from

Nakata, A. (2011). Effects of long work hours and poor sleep characteristics on workplace injury among full-time male employees of small-medium scale businesses. Journal of Sleep Research, 20(4), 576. Retrieved from

Powell, B. (2006, November). In Reply to Sweatshops Sophistries. Human Rights Quarterly, 28(4), 1031-1042. Retrieved from

Powell, B., & Skarbek, D. (2004, September 27). Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat? . Retrieved from The Independant Institute:

Ruddell, F. (2006, October). Shopping With a Social Conscience: Consumer Attitudes Toward Sweatshop Labor. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 24(4), 282-296. doi:10.1177/0887302X06293063

Sweatshops. (2013, January 25). Retrieved from UIC Social Theory 385:

Sweatshops in China. (2013). Retrieved from War On Want:

The FTAA and the Scourge of Sweatshops. (2013). Retrieved from Global Exchange:

Virtanen, M., Singh-Manoux, A., Ferrie, J. E., Gimeno, D., Marmot, M. G., Elovainio, M., . . . Kivimaki, M. (2009). Long Working Hours and Cognitive Function. American Journal of Epidemiology, 169(5), 596-605. doi:10.1093/aje/kwn382

Zin, R. H. (2012). "Inequality, Development, and Growth- Edited by Gunseli Berik, Yana van der Meulen Rodges and Stephanie Sequino. Asian-Pacific economic literature, 26(2), 168.