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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Oct 19, 2010, 8:29 am

Why Are Sweatshops So Invisible? One Answer: The Media

BY Richard Greenwald

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About 2,000 South Korean companies have applied to move their production facilities into North Korea, where they can pay workers only one-thirtieth of the monthly wage they pay at home.   (Photo by CHUNG SUNG-JUN/Getty Images)

As the 100th anniversary of New York City's Triangle Fire tragedy approaches (it's March 25th), I have been thinking a lot about both the fire and garment workers past and present. Even prior to 1911, garment workers were part of a larger pubic discussion. But in today’s rushed environment, we buy clothing with little thought about who made it.

Garment workers have simply faded from our frame of reference almost completely. And in that absence of thought, the machines still hum, cloth still moves, workers still toil, and clothes are still made. In that silence, exploitation rules unchecked and unobserved by most.

So it's rare that I read a piece of journalism profiling the struggles of garment workers. Rarer still, is an article that focuses on a micro level of a shop and a worker. When I do, I am reminded of the longer muckraking journalistic tradition that cared about workers. And that's just what Gabriel Thompson did in "When Even the Minimum Wage is Distant Dream," which has been re-published in the brand-new Pieces of a Decade: Brooklyn Rail Nonfiction 2000-2010.

Thompson's article originally appeared in the December 2004/January 2005  issue of The Rail, a Brooklyn monthly newspaper that focuses on culture and politics. I mention it because I remember being struck by how tender and human Thompson's depiction of Luz, a Mexican-born Brooklyn sweatshop worker, was when I first read it. It was the kind of article one would have seen regularly 100 years ago. When I opened Pieces of a Decade, a kind-of greatest hits from the paper, I was struck by the beauty of this article and the detail of its reporting. And I realized what we have lost by not having articles like this.

Thompson’s piece opens up a small part of Luz’s world to us, doing so with dignity. It allows us to put a name, and a personality, to the faceless masses who work. It reminds us that sweatshops are real, they are here (in New York City and other urban centers in the United States) and our actions, or rather inactions, allow the exploitation to continue.

I wondered as I was re-reading this article why we see so little of this sort of writing anymore. It isn’t because journalists don’t care. Many of the contributors to this collective blog are just the sort of journalists who care and would write such articles (and do). It is the result of the restructuring of the newspaper industry. The constriction of print journalism, the over-reliance on wire stories and the growth of newspaper chains means there is little room for investigative journalism. These kinds of stories aren’t in the business plan.

But smaller local and alternative papers such as The Brooklyn Rail can and do fill the void. These papers, however, have a limited circulation and budget. They often can’t afford to pay writers much if anything. Wouldn’t it be in organized labor’s interest to support these papers?

I propose that labor unions (locals as well as internationals) adopt (or at least financially support) these local, alternative papers. Distribute them to your members, as most are free. Encourage members to write for them and more importantly, through your foundations, donate funds (most as 501(c)3s) to support them. We need more stories such as Thompson’s out there. We need to renew interest in labor among today’s youth and 20-somethings. They should be reading these publications.

Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county's leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

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