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The History of America’s Textile Industry: How Can We Be the Voice for Those Without One?


“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness” – Mahatma Gandhi

An Overview

The late 1800s was a time marked by an influx in the immigrant population of the United States of America. As a cause of social, political, and economic issues arising in their countries, people from countries across Europe and Asia fled their homelands to seek a new life abundant with new opportunities. Often, though, the reality was that these immigrants had equally complicated lives in their new home, and their difficulties were often a cause of the oppressive working conditions they faced.


The turn of the century was also significant in that it led to the rise of textile factories in America. Clothing was quickly becoming an incredibly profitable industry, and garment factories started popping up across the country. The demand for the fast production of clothing, however, came hand in hand with the demand for cheap labor. As a result, factory owners turned to the one abundant, reliable source they could use: undocumented female immigrants. Now, 200 years later, despite the progressive reforms made in the 20th century, undocumented immigrants continue to be paid under minimum wage and still suffer from oppressive and dangerous working conditions in the textile industry. The increasing scrutiny on the immigration status of those living in America has ripped the voices from those who need it most. 

The picture above is a modern-day Nike sweatshop. Employees work long hours and are paid below minimum wage. (The Fashion Ezine)

My Personal Interest

This problem spiked my interest due to two main factors. Recently, there have been significant amounts of media coverage of the unfair and unhealthy working conditions in apparel companies that immigrants must endure to attempt to have a roof over their heads. Additionally, my parents are both immigrants, but they never endured the experiences that many others have had to. The combination of the news coverage, as well as the substantially different lifestyles of immigrants in America today, resulted in my curiosity about the history of this topic. It led me to research the most shocking incidents regarding labor abuse in the garment industry, the reasons, so few people stepped up to talk out against their poor treatment, and how the rights specific to garment industry workers have been neglected. I researched what laborers and/or advocates for labor rights have done to resist the treatment by garment factory owners and looked into what steps can be taken to minimize the prevalence of this issue in modern-day society.

This political cartoon presents a humorful take on the unknown, oppressive reality of many garment factory workers. (Bangladesh Summit)

Historical Background

Starting in the late 1800s, immigrants from countries in Europe and Asia started flooding into the country. It was common for men to arrive with their whole family, leading to a sudden increase in the population of young immigrant women who were looking for jobs to support their families. Most often, women worked as seamstresses in sweatshops. As time progressed, the number of garment factories using the labor of undocumented female immigrants increased, as did worker dissatisfaction.

Sweatshops: factories where workers were forced to work for long days for low wages under oppressive conditions.

Thousands of immigrants are boarded on a ship to America from Ireland, seeking a new life with new opportunities. (History)

One of the most devastating events in the history of New York City was known as the Triangle Factory Fire. As a result of a fire accident in a crowded garment factory lacking proper escape routes, almost 147 laborers died that day, a majority of whom were immigrant women. Witnesses to the devastating event explained, “They were employed at making shirt-waist by the Triangle Waist Company… Almost all are the main support of their hard-working families” (as cited in Aitkens 2). Even more greatly disappointing was the fact that these same women whose lives were taken as a result of poor working conditions were those who “had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops” (Aitkens 1). The terrible conditions of a workplace led to the deaths of innocent women during the time of an emergency.

Additionally, during this period, the American government had implemented many different immigration laws regulating who could enter the country. The infamous Chinese Exclusion Act regulated the number of Chinese laborers that could enter the country. Though the act was lifted in 1943, it had already had its impacts on immigration in America. Countries around the world started realizing America’s nativist attitude, leading to a rise in the number of undocumented immigrants in the country in the following years.

The graph above shows the increase of undocumented immigrants in America starting the 1970s. (ProCon)

The Connection

As more undocumented immigrants entered the country, the need for more jobs also increased. However, since most of them could not apply for “conventional jobs” because of their immigration status, they would work “illegally” in garment factories, as they were always in need of more laborers. Manufacturers have relied on the psychological power they have had over their workers; since they could not file complaints to the government due to their immigration status, factories could abuse their labor rights. Workers are too afraid of losing their job and of being discovered by the government to speak up. Hence, factory owners have been confident that their actions will not be uncovered. While efforts to eliminate sweatshops have been pursued, the unwillingness of workers to testify complicates court processes.

LA Times reporters look at the process behind the wages workers receive for each piece of clothing that is produced.

Present Day Problem

Today, American citizens express themselves and label themselves with their clothing. Media influencers and celebrities establish the ever-present importance of expression through clothing with “clothing hauls” and immense closets full of designer products. This has led America to have the greatest garment industry in the world, valuing 292 billion dollars as of 2016 (Statista). Along with this comes an extremely high demand for large amounts of clothing in a short amount of time. Fast fashion, defined by Merriam Webster as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers,” has driven up the demand for cheap, quickly made clothing with express delivery, low prices, and year-round sales. To hold up all the promises that they make to their customers at minimum cost, retailers continue to hire undocumented immigrants and commit abusive labor practices.

In 2017, the Los Angeles Times published the story of Norma Ulloa, an undocumented immigrant laborer for Forever 21, and one of the very few who have dared to speak up against the oppressive labor system of America’s garment industry. Since 2007, over 300 complaints have been filed against the company demanding proper pay and safe working conditions. Authors Victoria Kim and Natalie Kitroeff go on to explain that the average worker at the factory makes around $4 an hour, $8 below minimum wage in California (California State DIR). The laborers at the LA factory are mostly undocumented Latino immigrants. There is an unspoken agreement between the company and its workers: by accepting a lower wage, the retailer will provide a source of income without revealing the worker’s immigration status.

Pictured above is an LA-based Forever 21 sweatshop, similar to the one Norma Ulloa worked in. (LA Times)

One of the most shocking aspects of the situation, however, is that Forever 21 continues to refuse to pay back workers because of the vague wording of an old California state labor law. The law that was “originally intended to stamp out sweatshops” ended up failing in its cause because “[it] allowed workers to recoup back wages from their factory boss, and any garment manufacturing company that does business with that person. Forever 21 says it is a retailer, not a manufacturer,” and thus cleverly ensures that this right is not available to their workers. Even more shocking is that it only refuses to repay its LA workers, claiming that California state labor laws are much more lenient and that workers have much more freedom than they do in other states.

Wide-Scale Solutions

(PRI)

The federal government can act to improve working conditions for undocumented immigrants. First, our government must look over old labor laws, checking for loopholes and refining their terminology. It is critical to realize that the simple revision of these laws can result in more specific regulations about the rights of laborers. Additionally, one of the most prominent problems today is the fact that laborers are not being properly compensated for their workers. To ensure that workers are at least paid minimum wage, our governemnt needs to establish a form of authoritative group that watches over the treatment and payment of laborers. They could also have regular (mothly or bimonthly) inspections of factories to ensure that companies are abiding to workers and workplace laws. Most importantly, it is critical that they make clear to factory owners that United States federal law protects all citizens, regardless of their immigration status. The rights of laborers could be listed out on a poster, and it could be mandatory in all factories. 

What You Can Do To Help

Several things can be done on an individual level. As best as possible, purchase from stores that do not use sweatshops. Even if that means paying an extra $10 on a pair of jeans, that money goes a long way when it comes to the wages that these laborers receive. Here is a list of stores that are part of the Fair Trade Federation and swear against the use of sweatshops

Workers take part in a protest advocating for their labor rights. (HRW)

There are, however, those who cannot afford to make this commitment. Therefore, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of the more-privileged in our society. The best thing that we all can do, however, is to be informed. Associations like Workplace FairnessLegal Aid at Work, and the National Immigration Law Center provide excellent resources that outline the rights of undocumented laborers and notify you of protests and rallies that you can participate in. Participation in public forms of advocation for the cause of undocumented immigrant laborers is a feasible goal for many. Using the voices in our society is one of the best, cost-free methods to express an opinion and make a difference. Additionally, you can express your standpoint on this issue by writing a letter to state senators or Congress expressing concerns and suggestions for improving the situation. By taking the aforementioned steps, we will continue to progress a more inclusive and diverse society, helping our country live up to its ideal of the land of opportunity and the land of the free. 

Thank you so much for visiting my webpage! I would love to hear from you. Please use the comment section to respond to the following questions.

  1. Before reading this webpage, were you aware that so many of the clothes you own are produced by undercompensated workers?
  2. Have you ever been to a protest for the rights of undocumented laborers’, or do you plan on going on one now?
  3. Are there any other ideas you have that could help improve this situation?

Works Cited

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COMMENTS: 14
  1. April 22, 2020 by Gowsalya Muthusamy

    Very nice article with a lot of research done.

    • April 23, 2020 by Nisha

      Thank you!

  2. April 23, 2020 by Lakshmi.s

    Thorough analysis and documentation. Good job

    • April 23, 2020 by Nisha

      Thank you!

  3. April 23, 2020 by Premkumar Badragiri

    Textile industry issues of South Asia was known to me but I wasn’t aware issues in America. Surprised to that worker rights are oppressed in developed nations also… unfortunate…
    Good to see that you are raising the voice…it will be heard

    • April 23, 2020 by Nisha

      Thank you! I think that our government takes a lot of preventative measures to make sure that issues like these aren’t well-known, and it’s important that we bring attention to it.

  4. April 24, 2020 by lucas

    Thanks for this! I appreciate your use of historical context to underscore a modern problem. I am interested in how advocates are making consumers aware of these issues. I saw your link out to the list of stores but is there a program that places a special symbol on Fair Trade clothing, much like an “organic” or “B Corp” type certification?

    • April 24, 2020 by Nisha

      Hi, Lucas! Thank you so much for visiting my webpage, and great question! Though it is often difficult to always know if our clothing is sourced ethically, a good starting place is the clothing tag. As you were mentioning, even the information that the garment is sourced from organic cotton often signifies good working conditions! Organic cotton is more difficult to source, and the prices that farmers will demand it are much higher. Having a GOTS certification is an indicator that your cotton is being ethically sourced. Additionally, you can check the composition label on the clothing. On that, you can actually see the logos of companies that have certified ethically-sourced labor. Fair Trade clothing, Oeko-Tex, Fair Wear Foundation, and Eco-Age are all examples of them. You will be able to find the logos on the composition label on a piece of clothing to see if they have certified it as ethically sourced. I hope this helps!

  5. April 24, 2020 by Eduardo Escobar

    The textile industry is something not often covered in schools, so well done for choosing it as a topic and doing the research for it.

    • April 24, 2020 by Nisha

      Thank you!

  6. April 26, 2020 by Sridhar

    Good research and analysis about unknown side of textile industry. Sad to know Sweatshop still exists in developed countries also.
    Thanks for the raising the voice and suggesting how we can help.

    • April 26, 2020 by Nisha

      Thank you!

  7. April 26, 2020 by Sydney

    This was really cool and well-developed! I loved your discussion of the history of this issue, as well as your proposed solutions. I especially liked your video on the production of a tank-top, too. Great job!

    • April 26, 2020 by Nisha

      Thank you!

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