My grandmother, like many Italian-American women, was a seamstress. As a young woman, she worked in a sweatshop in Lower Manhattan. After she married and had a family, she worked in a sweatshop closer to home, in Queens. She was a working woman – a working mother – long before it was commonplace. And my mother was a latch-key kid before there was such a term.
Over the years, my grandmother sewed men’s shirts, women’s blouses and skirts, and even crisp white nurses’ uniforms. As a “piece worker,” her job might be to sew on the collars, or attach the sleeves, whatever was needed. She didn’t work as a means to fulfillment. She worked to maintain the basic necessities of life.
The stories I heard about the sweatshop left a profound impression on me. The piece workers’ pay was based on the number of pieces they completed. And the pay per piece was barely pocket change. The seamstresses were forced to work at warp speed, with inspectors scrutinizing the finished garments to ensure high quality. A bell signaled the beginning and ending of the lunch break, during which the women sat at their sewing machines eating their brown bag lunches. They didn’t even stop to go to the ladies’ room until it was an emergency. And there were no employee benefits of any kind. Sweatshops were so named because in summertime, large noisy fans kept the air circulating, but did not cool the sweltering rooms, crowded with women who were literally drenched in sweat. Now airborne from the whirling fans, the abundant fabric fibers and lint easily stuck to the women’s skin.
Today’s workplace feeds the 24/7 culture and the 9-to-5 workday is fast becoming obsolete. Workers are expected to check email at night and on weekends. Meetings are routinely scheduled between 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm so lunch breaks are sacrificed, and it’s not uncommon for workers to skip eating a meal all together. When staff leave and are not replaced, the remaining workers’ workloads increase, sometimes twofold. Earned vacation cannot be taken, and is lost. Working mothers are in conflict – work late or go to your child’s soccer game? And the single woman is expected to work late – because she doesn’t have a family.
A woman I know made a conservative calculation of the extra hours she worked, for no additional compensation, over a three-year-period, and was horrified when she realized the five-digit sum could’ve bought her a new, mid-sized car for cash, or better yet, secured the down payment for a condo.
Years ago, a brand of cigarettes that was specifically created for, and marketed to, women ran an ad campaign with the tag line, “you’ve come a long way, baby.” Is the modern workplace the new sweatshop and, have we really come a long way?