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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).

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