A living wage

Daily Reading for September 6 • Labor Day

It hangs in the window of one of the little cash-and-carry stores that now line a street where fashionable New Yorkers used to drive out in their carriages to shop at Tiffany’s and Constable’s. It is a “supper dress” of silk crepe in “the new red,” with medieval sleeves and graceful skirt. A cardboard tag on the shoulder reads: “Special $4.95.” Bargain basements and little ready-to-wear shops are filled with similar “specials.”

But the manufacturer who pays a living wage for a reasonable week’s work under decent conditions cannot turn out attractive silk frocks to retail at $5 or less. The real cost is borne by the workers in the sweatshops that are springing up in hard-pressed communities. Under today’s desperate need for work and wages, girls and women are found toiling overtime at power machines and worktables, some of them for paychecks that represent a wage of less than 10 cents a day.

The sweatshop employer is offending against industry’s standards, as well as against the standards of the community. The employer who, in order to pay fair wages for reasonable hours of work, produces dresses in his shop to retail at $9.50, finds himself in competition with the less conscientious manufacturer whose “sweated” garments are offered at $4.95. . . .

Working conditions, including safety provisions, sanitation, rest room facilities and so on, are, like standards of wages and hours, holding up well in responsible concerns. In the runaway shop conditions are usually far below standard and the picture of such a plant is a look back to the sweatshops that horrified caseworkers and visiting nurses at the turn of the century.

What is the way out for the conscientious consumer who does not want to buy garments, even at a bargain, made by exploited labor? Common sense will tell the purchaser that someone must pay the price of the well-cut silk dress offered at $4.95. The manufacturer is not producing these frocks for pleasure or for charity. If the purchaser does not pay a price that allows for a subsistence wage and reasonable hours and working conditions, then the cost of the “bargain” must be sweated out of the workers.

The red silk bargain dress in the shop window is a danger signal. It is a warning of the return of the sweatshop, a challenge to us all to reinforce the gains we have made in our long and difficult progress toward a civilized industrial order.

From “The Cost of a Five-Dollar Dress” by Frances Perkins, in the Survey Graphic (February 1933).

Past Posts