Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector

Source: T. A. Frank, Washington Monthly, Vol. 40 no. 4, April 2008

Presidential candidates are calling for tougher labor standards in trade agreements. But can such standards be enforced? Here’s what I learned from my old job.

I remember one particularly bad factory in China. It produced outdoor tables, parasols, and gazebos, and the place was a mess. Work floors were so crowded with production materials that I could barely make my way from one end to the other. In one area, where metals were being chemically treated, workers squatted at the edge of steaming pools as if contemplating a sudden, final swim. The dormitories were filthy: the hallways were strewn with garbage–orange peels, tea leaves–and the only way for anyone to bathe was to fill a bucket with cold water. In a country where workers normally suppress their complaints for fear of getting fired, employees at this factory couldn’t resist telling us the truth. “We work so hard for so little pay,” said one middle-aged woman with undisguised anger. We could only guess how hard–the place kept no time cards. Painted in large characters on the factory walls was a slogan: “If you don’t work hard today, look hard for work tomorrow.” Inspirational, in a way.

…Today, labor standards are once again in the news. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have criticized trade deals such as NAFTA as unfair to American workers, and the new thinking is that trade agreements should include strict labor standards. Obama has cited a recent free trade agreement with Peru as an example of how to go forward. I hope he’s right, but let’s remember that NAFTA was also hailed, in its day, for including labor protections. Our solutions on paper have proved hard to enforce. Peru attempts to remedy some of the problems of NAFTA, but we’re still advancing slowly in the dark….

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