Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector

T.A. Frank, an editor at the Washington Monthly and a former sweatshop inspector, ruminates on sweatshops worldwide — with a particular focus on China — and the companies they supply with cheap products. From the Washington Monthly:

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.

I was there because, six years ago, I had a job at a Los Angeles firm that specialized in the field of “compliance consulting,” or “corporate social responsibility monitoring.” It’s a service that emerged in the mid-1990s after the press started to report on bad factories around the world and companies grew concerned about protecting their reputations. With an increase of protectionist sentiment in the United States, companies that relied on cheap labor abroad were feeling vulnerable to negative publicity. They still are. (See “Disney Taking Heat Over China” in the Los Angeles Times this March.)

Towards the end of the article Frank suggests some tips for consumers interested in finding out whether or not a given company — like Nike or Walmart — is conscientious of its factory workers:

…ordinary consumers searching on company Web sites—,, etc.—can find out almost everything they need to know just sitting at their desks. For instance, just now I learned from Wal-Mart’s latest report on sourcing that only 26 percent of its audits are unannounced. By contrast, of the inspections Target conducts, 100 percent are unannounced. That’s a revealing difference. And companies that do what Nike does—prescreen, build long-term relationships, disclose producers—make a point of emphasizing that fact, and are relatively transparent. Companies that don’t are more guarded. (When in doubt, doubt.)

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