It's the inconvenient truth of the rag trade: an abundance of cheap, trendy clothes -- also known as "fast fashion" -- carries a hidden cost of human misery. For the American consumer, it is easy to ignore the problem of sweatshop labor because, like the migrant workers who harvest our food, the people who make our clothing are mostly invisible. "Sweatshop" once referred to a system of production, where garment producers contracted with middlemen to handle unskilled tasks on a piecework basis. Because of the fierce competition among these subcontractors, this "sweating" system tended to not only depress wages, but place tremendous pressure on the middlemen to do just about anything to increase productivity, resulting in long workdays, crowded workplaces and grinding working conditions. After the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, labor laws and unionization helped improve conditions, propelled by consumer demand for sweat-free products.
Since the 1970s, the gains of the Progressive Era began to be eroded, first by relocating of garment production to parts of the US with fewer unions, and then to countries with less worker protection. Out of sight, out of mind.
Every once in a while, we are reminded that sweatshops still exist within our borders, despite the legal protections available. In a recent news story, LA Times reporter Shan Li described a Labor Department investigation of fast-fashion icon Forever 21 for "'significant' violations of federal laws on minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping by vendors supplying the company". It is important to understand that, since 1994, the federal government no longer defines a sweatshop by the contracting arrangement by according to non-compliance with federal or state labor laws. For the truly wonkish, there is a searchable database of investigations at the Department of Labor Database (try a search on apparel, filtering by OSHA violations, for example). For those with a more activist inclination, check out Sweatfree Communities and the National Consumers League.