A New Yorker cartoon published in the late nineties depicts a bedraggled pajamas-wearing man with a morningcho: to examine the label on his shirt, or not? Examination means that before 8am, the man will have considered dysentery, Thailand international wage prices, anti-Americanism, and Mexico. Either choice leads to the inevitable outcome to “put on the shirt and forget about it,” but (to comic effect) examination is freighted with a glimpse into the vast network of global processes that made his humble quotidian.

In recent months we have had no shortage of reasons to peek under the label and into the abyss. In China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, deadly fires and building collapses at garment factories have reminded western consumers that what used to be railed against as “sweatshops” have now sunk quietly into the background noise of the 21st century. Since the end of garment import quotas in 2005, the sweatshop has become endogenous to the international economy, creating a silent behemoth that is “the sweatshop sublime,” as Bruce Robbins, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University has called it, or a “phantom,” as I have written in this Hippo Reads exclusive reprint “Phantom Tec”, and you can’t do much about something that appears not to exist.

Last millennium there was great alarm about the sweatshop. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a huge influx of immigrant labor to America’s cities offered an alternative to the factory, owned and operated by the same manufacturer that sold its goods, well-regulated, well-paying, all-American. They borrowed from England the term “sweatshop” to refer to the system of labor that emerged in which “sweaters” oversaw subcontracted work – the same that was done in factories – at lower wages, over longer hours, and in cramped illegal spaces, like tenement houses, which still stand on New York’s Lower East Side. The New Deal vanquished most sweatshops, but as Bill Buford wrote for The New Yorker in 1999, by the 1990s, they were back. Fueled by an increasing number of immigrants, by 1999 when Buford writes, New York’s Chinatown sweatshops were booming, incurring scandal, and then discovering that new free trade agreements like NAFTA made it more profitable to move abroad.

The bad press followed American brands elsewhere, and in order to establish a system of labor regulations, corporations hired “compliance consultants” or “corporate social responsibility monitors.” T.A. Frank, a former consultant, gives his confessions on the challenges of administering compliance in this 2008 essay at Washington Monthly: uncooperative interviewees, fabricated time cards and records, and good and bad companies who cared varyingly about the outcomes of inspections for improving worker standards. Interestingly, Frank thinks the model of “compliance consulting” works so long as the hearts of the corporations are in it – and it is the type of solution that led many American consumers to believe sweatshops were mostly a thing of the past.

But corporate auditing firms have certified many of the factories that have burned or collapsed in recent months, leading some, like David Bacon at TruthOut, to argue what is really needed is worker-led unionization, following an AFL-CIO report published in April to the same effect. These advocates argue that empowering labor is the only way to throw weight behind demands for workplace safety. Even if it is true, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has argued – that sweatshops are better than another option, they are far from ideal, a distinction made forcefully by Haitian labor organizer Batay Ouvriye regarding her own country, where the U.S. and U.N. are proposing re-development based on an expansion of assembly plants. Bill and Hillary Clinton helped inaugurate the Caracol Industrial Park in Haiti in 2012, which had already produced 76,000 T-shirts for Walmart.

New Deal Labor Secretary Frances Perkins once told Americans, “the red silk bargain dress in the shop window is a danger signal. It is a warning of the return to the sweatshop, a challenge to us all.” The sweatshop returned to America at the waning of the 20th century only to be sent out of sight in the 21st, beyond our easy judgment of its faults and its tempting offer of cheaper goods for a recession-weary America. Many of the country’s business associations, as TIME reports, want Americans to buy abroad for the very reason Perkins warned against – it’s cheap.

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Image credit: marissaorton via flickr

About The Author

Sahiba Gill
Assistant Editor, The Common; Senior Global Academic Fellow, NYU Abu Dhabi

Sahiba Gill is Assistant Editor at The Common and a Senior Global Academic Fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi.