Reality of sweatshops passed on to students

By Renee DiPietro
April 19, 2001

Dr. Mary Lever

by Renee Di Pietro
assistant features editor

Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the site.actually, Christmas is long gone, but the treacherous hours that are put in to prepare for the holiday season are just around the corner – for sweatshop workers.

Spring is here, summer will shortly follow and then we get to take a break from our harder days of the year, our “school days.” Yet as we begin to relax our schedules a little more during May and June the heat is turned on for workers of sweatshops all around the world.

It is known as the “Black Season,” a time when they are forced to work 16-hour shifts, seven days a week, which adds up to 110 hours a week. Workers are submitted to these long days so that sneakers, clothing and other material necessities will be on the store shelves in the U.S. in time for the holiday season.

These long days and small pay are not the worst part in this sweaty picture. In sweatshops all around the world, workers live in the poorest housing conditions and are sometimes locked in their factories because the manager is afraid that they might steal the merchandise during their breaks.

Sweatshop factories still continue to exist because they hide their production ethics behind locked factory gates, barbed wire, armed guards and fear.

Sweatshop employees learn to be quiet in order to protect their job. They need their job, without it, they lose everything. When workers are fired they are not compensated with unemployment insurance or Social Security. They are sent back to their rural community with nothing but the clothes on their back.

Jeanne Radicone, a junior double majoring in secondary education and special education, recently embarked to Mexico for the Border Experience with the Campus Ministry. Radicone was exposed to the reality behind sweatshops, or maquilas as they are known there, and returned to the States saddened and disgusted.

Radicone explained her reactions, “I’m disgusted to think that big companies, such as Nike, Gap, and Wal-Mart, seem to think degrading people is ok. Whatever happened to having a conscience?”

Celena Blasucci, a senior elementary special education major, also went to Mexico with Campus Ministry. Like Radicone, she returned with a new perspective, the result of learning about the typical lives of a sweatshop worker.

“When I go shopping now I look on the tags of clothes before I buy them,” Blasucci said. “If it is made is Mexico, I don’t buy it, which confuses me sometimes whether that is doing more harm then good.”

Radicone also feels confusion now when shopping on whether or not to support companies that use production in Mexico.

“Boycotting a store that manufactures their products in Mexico sounds like a good idea, right?” Radicone said. “But then what happens? The maquilas are closed down in Mexico. That might sound good, but it really is not. Ultimately, the big companies will just move to another country and build more maquilas, which will leave several Mexicans unemployed.”

Most of the sweatshop workers in China producing goods for the United States companies are young women, who are 17 to 25 years old. They are migrants from rural communities with little education and are often not aware of their legal rights. These women call their “home” a dorm room that houses at least six to 12 other women. They live on thin rice gruel and can be fired for discussing the conditions of the factory work they do.

The company name found on the labels of merchandise that were produced in sweatshops is a disguise of the endless sweat and torment that went into the production of that merchandise. The workers and the stories of their lives have been hidden behind various labels for too long and the Human Rights for Workers and the National Labor Committee have blown the lid off of many sweatshop factories.

Nike, Gap, Kmart, Liz Claiborne, Sears and Structure are just a few of the multi-national companies that continue to use sweatshops for their production. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, has become the target for many human-rights organizations. The organizations hope that if they can change the production decisions of Wal-Mart, then hopefully the entire industry will begin to operate differently.

The end of sweatshops will not come about by workers quitting their jobs because that will not happen. The workers need their miniscule pay an hour to support their family back home in rural communities.

Radicone tells the story of the woman named Cristina,who she met while on the Border Experience while building a library for her house. Cristina worked for a sweatshop and helps educate people about the situation many Mexicans sweatshop workers are faced with.

“Cristina lived in Anapra (a colony) and had an accident at the maquila (sweat shop). She was hurt badly from being burned and was unable to work. However, the doctors at the maquila told her that she was fine and that she could go back to work. She was also told that if she did not go back she would be fired. Consequently, she did go back to work…despite the pain from her accident.”

Cristina, her husband and children are not involved with the production in sweatshops anymore, but they educate the students that visit her town on the Border Experience as they do community service work. Last summer they helped build a library.

For most sweatshop workers in China, like in Mexico, this is their first job and they not aware that they have rights. They are subjected to the consequences of being fired for being pregnant or for showing interest in organizations to defend their daily rights. Besides their substandard wages, they are being screamed at when the factory is not meeting the daily quota of production, sexually harassed, monitored and limited bathroom breaks and denied health care.

“I could never imagine working long hours in those horrific conditions for a measly salary,” Radicone said.

Blasucci believes that the workers in Mexico want to come over the border, but that the wages that they survive on in Mexico is not enough to survive on in the States.

“Once the workers get to the U.S. they just have to go back again because they cannot survive,” Blasucci said.

Though the life of a sweatshop worker seems empty and unfulfilling, Radicone expressed a positive quality she found in the people she met in Mexico.

“The thing that touched me the most,” Radicone said, “was their unfailing faith in God. For example, although Cristina, her husband and their four children didn’t have a lot materialistically, they were rich in so many other ways and were grateful for the blessings that they did have, such as each other.”

To learn about the battle to close sweatshops visit, the National Labor Committee’s web site. The latest breaking reports on sweatshops and the fight against the production ethics are updated immediately. The new findings may cause you to take a second look at company tag before you buy their merchandise.

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Renee DiPietro

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