Bangladesh Factory Collapse: Sweatshop Labor Can (and Does) Happen Here, Too


Dov Charney is the modern-day, snarky, fashion version of Upton Sinclair, staging attacks against the unfair working conditions many garment factories force upon their workers.

The American Apparel CEO has been on a crusade ever since the collapse of a sweatshop in Bangladesh that took the lives of more than 1,100 people in April. Charney has set his sights directly on the Swedish-based, bargain-bin-priced clothing store, H&M, which has a large stake in the use of Bangladeshi garment factory workers, but was not connected to the factory collapse within Rana Plaza.

There has been recent talk of raising the minimum wage in Bangladesh, but for the moment it remains at $40 a month.

Sweatshops have become a common defining characteristic when many people think of certain countries outside the United States. However what many people don't realize is that sweatshops do exist stateside. They just don't receive nearly the same amount of attention.

One of the most infamous sweatshop tales goes back almost two decades to El Monte, California, a suburb of Los Angeles where more than 70 Thai immigrants were held captive from anywhere between five to seven years in an apartment complex-turned-garment factory. The workers, many of whom were brought to America illegally, were paid $1.60 an hour and forced to work 17 hours a day.

The workers were also forced to live in cramped quarters, with as many as 16 people to a room, with space also allotted to sewing and cutting garment materials.

Cases as extreme as El Monte are few and far between in America, and for that reason may not be as comparable to situations like the one in Bangladesh. But as California's state labor commissioner Victoria Bradshaw said in 1995, "I never would have believed a situation like this could exist in the United States."

Sweatshops still exist in the United States today. Take a walk through Chinatown in Los Angeles and quickly glance into the open back doors of what look to be small, family-owned shops. This is the type of place that many passersby wouldn't give a second thought to, and maybe that's part of the reason they still exist, because they go unnoticed and un-reported. Blind eyes are consistently turned to the piles upon piles of clothing made by workers who are paid a fraction of the $7.25 an hour that counts as the minimum wage in America.

Despite the widespread raids that took place six months ago ago in Downtown L.A.,home to American Apparel's factories, sweatshops continue to provide major clothing companies with products. This leaves the question, which is worse: sweatshops that receive international press, or those that will forever go unnoticed?