Sweat Shop Labour


When Anna came to Australia from China in 1992 she had not done any sewing work. After she arrived, she saw an advertisement for factory machinist work in a Chinese newspaper. She worked for one week in that factory, making coats for $4/hour before they asked her to leave because another worker was faster. Within a week she got another job in a factory in the Marrickville area, sewing trousers. When she first started she worked six days a week, eight hours a day for $200. In the quiet season that year she was sacked, so she bought herself an industrial sewing machine and began sewing garments for sub-contractors at home (as a ‘homeworker’ or ‘outworker’).

The main items Anna sews are ladies’ fashions, of many different kinds. Sub-contractors deliver the pre-cut pieces, a ‘sample’ (finished garment) and some basic instructions to her house and tell her when they will collect the finished garments. The employer sets the deadline and the price they will pay ‘per piece’, and Anna usually accepts it. She is afraid that if she asks for more money, she won’t get the work.

Recently Anna has been making women’s trousers – ‘lots of overlocking’. She is a very fast worker. In one day, if she works from 8am to 10pm, she can make 12 pairs of trousers. She stops for breaks for about one and a half hours each day. She says she has to work these long hours to meet the deadline set by the contractor. She is paid about $6/piece (pair of trousers) and receives no overtime or extra payment for annual leave or superannuation. None of her employers has insurance to cover worker’s compensation (which all employers are required to provide for any worker’s injuries).

Not long ago Anna made 25 skirts for one employer. It was difficult fabric and she was told she would be paid $9/piece, but when she completed the work the employer asked her to make some adjustments. She spent four days making the requested changes with no extra payment. She went to the employer’s factory every day for seven days to collect her payment. When she was eventually paid, her payment was reduced by $90 as a penalty for the adjustments.

Anna says that sometimes her employers are very friendly and ask her to do them favours. At other times they make unfair changes, deduct payments after work is completed and shout at her. When there is no work to be done she is just forgotten.

Outwork can lead to many health problems. Anna’s include breathing problems, chest and shoulder pain and difficulty sleeping at night. ‘I work too much and worry too much,’ she says. Anna doesn’t receive any government benefits.

Anna told her story to the NSW Government’s Pay Equity Inquiry in 1998. She told them she thinks ‘the government needs to do something fair, to not cheat the outworkers. We are good people – working and contributing to the Australian community.’ (Adapted from a case study included in the Fairwear website).

The following scenario allows you to explore the viewpoints of a range of different people. (The Flash file is around 80k).

Finding The Facts


The Fair Wear site offers a ‘frequently asked questions‘ section, plus outworker case studies, details of aims and objectives, and ways in which people can become active in pressing for just remuneration and conditions for those in home working industries. More outworkers’ stories can indicate both why workers choose these jobs and how they are open to exploitation.

The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union has a page outlining the legal rights of outworkers.

The textile union site FairWear details some of the inequities in the clothing industry. A Code of Practice is in place but compliance is often an issue. Many workers are migrants with little English and are hesitant to press for their rights.

An insight from a business point of view into company rationales for outsourcing is given on the site Outsourcing Index.


Marion Baird’s brief essay, Who do you work for?, on the University of Sydney website, looks at the Australian scene and the trend to outsourcing here. The same site offers many articles and interviews of interest on workplace issues, which you might like to explore.

There is also the Shop Ethical website which provides information on making clothing, food and other retail choices based on the companies ethical practices. Clothing Edition shares a video as well as other links you may wish to explore.


The most controversial ‘sweat shop’ case on the international scene concerns the Nike shoe company. To get some background on the issues surrounding Nike’s role in the Asian footwear industry, you might look at an essay by Steven Van Dusen on the University of North Carolina website.

There are numerous other essays and articles posted on websites which are strongly critical of Nike’s role in Asia. One reputable source is the Oxfam/Community Aid Abroad Nikewatch, which contains an overview of practices in factories producing apparel for Nike.

Nike defends itself by claiming that its outsourced factories provide desperately needed jobs and that it monitors its factories closely to counter claims of abuse and exploitation. Read Nike’s defence of its practices on its website.


  • List the reasons why someone may want to work from home. Why are home workers in some industries so vulnerable?
  • Investigate the regulation of the clothing industry in Australia. Who is involved? And how effective are industry ‘codes of conduct’?
  • Account for the difference in perception of Nike manufacturing practices? Are Nike’s problems entirely its own fault?
  • The creation of more jobs, particularly in developing countries, is often presented as a major positive outcome of outsourced production. Does increased job creation sometimes ‘cancel out’ or compromise the just and equitable treatment of workers?
  • What might be the impact of a large company’s presence in an impoverished society?

Broadening Perspectives

Underlying the issues of ethical employment and remuneration for workers are questions about the relationship between work and rewards for that work, between employer and employee, and between capital and industry.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution of the 18th century caused the most radical upheaval in the history of work and workers. It gave rise to a new manufacturing order that continues to have a massive effect in the world today. The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History, by Stephen Kreis, is an excellent lecture series tracing the history of western thought. Refer to Lecture 17 ‘The Origins of the Industrial Revolution in England‘ to learn about the impact of the industrial age on views of work, wealth and labour. If you are interested in finding out about how such theories affect how we think about economics and politics today, subsequent lectures in this series will help you trace the origins of capitalism and socialism.

Macquarie University’s Open Learning Centre has a good introduction to the idea of free enterprise which discusses arguments for and against this economic theory.

Karl Marx

No discussion of the history of modern political and economic ideas would be complete without reference to Marx’s thought. The above-mentioned History Guide’s article on Karl Marx is an introduction to his thought while a blog entitled Key Ideas contains a very much simpler introduction to his thought.  Marx was bitterly opposed to the commodification of labour. Ironically and tragically, some of his ideas led to the commodification of human beings on a grand scale in 20th century Communist dictatorships.

Trade Union

Finally, it would be worthwhile looking at the concept of trade unions. In Australia, almost from the beginning of European settlement, there has existed a strong tradition of trade unionism. A short video explains the aims of a trade union and shows how a union empowers individual workers by enabling them to act together to bring about improvements in their working conditions. On the H.R. Nicholl’s site, Joe Thompson AM argues against unionism and in favour of enterprise bargaining as a more effective way of managing relationships between employers and employees.


  • Are there parallels between the plight of workers after the Industrial Revolution and home workers now? What has changed? What has stayed the same?
  • Use the Circle of Viewpoints technique or the Tug of War routine to explore this topic: As all workers benefit from pay and conditions won by unions, should membership be compulsory, or is compulsory union membership undemocratic?

Exploring Sacred Texts


The unfolding narrative of the early chapters of Genesis convey a sense of what the relationship between human beings and work is intended to be. The rhythm of work and rest is already established in the story of God’s work of creation, both between the days in Chapter One and at week’s end in Chapter Two.

Adam and Eve

In Genesis 2, it is interesting to note that the story narrative has Adam created before God actually plants the garden which is given to him to tend. The implication is that work is for human beings, not human beings for work; human beings are not to be defined by their work. Yet the fact that God gives the garden to Adam and instructs him to work it shows also that work is natural to human beings and was not meant to be wearying or burdensome.

The account of the Fall of Adam and Eve, who are representatives of all humanity, signals the disruption of God’s original plan for human beings, their labour included. Work, like every other aspect of human life, was affected by sin and henceforth it is by the ‘sweat of his brow‘ that Adam and all human beings make their way in the world. The consequences of the disruption of God’s plan unfold in the rivalries and conflicts, jealousy and envy, expressed in the ancient stories of Genesis.


The book of Exodus dramatises the depths to which work relationships can sink. The Hebrews, strangers in Egypt and racially and religiously different, are enslaved by their overlords. They are persecuted and without rights, and subject to arbitrary cruelty. Their subsequent liberation shows that God is not indifferent to the plight of these enslaved workers. They are delivered ultimately to their own land where they eat what the land provides for them through their own labour. Gavin Drew reflects on this in his essay, ‘How Then Should We Live?‘, and suggests some implications of this story for those who count the Exodus as part of their spiritual heritage.

The Prophets

One of the key themes of the prophets of Israel is the call to justice and compassion, summed up in the well-known quotation from Micah 6:8, ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ For a brief perspective of how Micah fits into the prophetic tradition, plus an exploration of this text, read ‘What Does the Lord Require?’ by Carey Dillinger.

The Gospels

The Gospels show Jesus announcing the reign of God, the signs of which will be the restoration of everything lost by the perversion of God’s original plan for creation. His life and words were devoted to announcing and bringing about the reign of God, especially to those who felt themselves far from it. No reader of the Gospels can fail to see that Jesus directs himself and his message especially to ‘all those who labour and are heavy burdened’.


  • Can you detect in the passages from Genesis and Exodus some of the patterns which still characterise work and work practices?
  • The story of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt has been the inspiration behind many struggles for freedom and self-determination. Why do you think this is so?
  • Check references to work and labour in the New Testament, using a concordance (print or online). Read the significant references in context and use them to outline features of an ethic for work based on the Gospel.

Understanding the Catholic Tradition

We have seen from the very opening pages of the Judaeo–Christian Scriptures that the word of God touched upon the earthly, practical and material realities of life as well as conveying spiritual truths. The Church’s mission is to extend in time the teaching and example of Jesus, and so we see in the early communities the sharing of life and work, and concern for the poor emerging as two defining characteristics of Christians.

The Church

As the Church took its place in mainstream society, teachings about the place of work in Christian life was reflected upon and documented. Anthony of Egypt, John Cassian and Benedict, founders of Christian monasticism, all included the concept of work among the paths to holiness, but never as an end in itself. Benedict’s Rule in particular is famous for its triple emphasis on prayer, study and work.

St Augustine

Augustine’s teaching was firm on justice for the poor and the sharing of goods, as well as on the need for honest work. For an overview of how work was regarded in the medieval period, refer to the paper by Roger Hill, Attitudes toward Work during the Medieval period‘.

John Calvin

The Protestant reformers, particularly John Calvin, regarded worldly success as one of the indications of God’s election, and so a strong work ethic is a characteristic often associated with Protestantism and referred to as the Protestant ethic.

The United Kingdom group, Chrism, has a good, brief paper on the spirituality of work that summarises many points of view and is well worth a look.

Papal Documents

Modern Catholic social teaching originates in an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, in 1891, entitled Rerum Novarum. Consider reading Leo’s encyclical in its entirety, but if you find its wording a challenge, you could read a summary and background, and an overview of the social teaching which has flowed from it, on a site established by the Social Action Office of the Leaders of Religious Institutes, Queensland.

Brief quotations from papal documents on the meaning and purpose of work and the rights and responsibilities of workers could provide stimulus for many class discussions.

Catholic Social Teaching

The Busy Christian’s Guide to Catholic Social Teaching is yet another useful site: it juxtaposes a history timeline alongside paragraphs that summarise the main points and give the context of each of the major social encyclicals since 1891. It also makes note of any innovative thinking within documents. Finally, you might be interested to look at a paper by John Wilcox which illustrates an ‘applied’ Catholic response to the sweat shop issue, ‘Business Ethics and Catholic Identity‘.


  • Describe the different philosophies of work which characterise Catholic and Protestant Christian traditions. Are these different approaches still visible in 21st century Australia? If not, what has replaced them?
  • Use the Think, Puzzle, Explore routine to explore what understanding of the human person underlies Catholic social teaching about work?
  • Read the article by Anthony Basile, ‘Crucified between Two Thieves‘. According to Basile, in what ways does the Church’s social teaching differ from the capitalist approach and the socialist approach? Do you agree?

Respecting Other World Views


Judaism and Christianity share a substantially similar approach to the question of work and labour in that both traditions share the First Testament scriptures and both traditions have had to confront the rise of industrialism and the ongoing challenges of framing an ethical and moral response to it. But Judaism does have its own particular perspective. Our labor legacy commands us to fight sweat shops provides a Jewish perspective on the practice while What’s Jewish about Fair Trade? introduces Jewish views about fairness, dignity and justice.


A Buddhist approach to the economy and to questions of labour and capital can be gleaned from a critique of Shinichi Inoue’s book Putting Buddhism to Work. Also helpful is an extract, Buddhist Economics, from the book by E. Schumacher, entitled Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.


The caste system within Hinduism is an aspect of faith which is hard for Westerners to accept and to understand. It has given rise to terrible inequalities, yet in its origins it attempts to affirm the equal importance of every kind of work and to curb the inborn ambition and envy of human beings. The paper, ‘Division of Labour‘ by Shri Kantri Kamkoti Peetham, provides an insight into this aspect of Hinduism. Another reflection by Rajaji Gopalachari also throws light on Hindu attitudes to work and labour. An essay on corporate goals and economic well-being, while not specifically religious, discusses how Indian ways of thinking are being brought to bear on new economic realities in that country.


Read an interesting discussion between two scholars, one Western and one from an Islamic background, to find out about the similarities and differences between the two points of view on social justice, human rights and the secular society.

A further site which discusses an Islamic view of social and economic matters conveys the connection between religious belief and economic activity in Islam. It describes how the division between sacred and secular arenas, which is taken for granted in the West, is blurred in Islamic societies.


  • Identify an aspect of the belief of each of the three great non-Judaeo-Christian religions that you think would make an impact for good on the way workers are treated.

Examining Personal Experience

What kinds of experiences of your own family, forebears or friends can you bring to bear on your understanding of the issues confronting workers suffering exploitation?

Compile a class profile of the working experiences of parents, grandparents and other antecedents of class members. Is it inevitable that people with few resources will be exploited and that everyone has to struggle to improve their lot in society?

Does the research undertaken on this topic make class members keen to support such campaigns as Fairwear, or to buy clothes only from firms which have signed a code of conduct?


  • Find out the facts.
  • Broaden your perspectives.
  • Explore the sacred texts.
  • Understand the tradition.
  • Consider other world views.
  • Review your personal experience.

Articulate your own response.