Invisible Seen: Sweatshop Labor

Students in Ali Stewart-Ito’s Honors American Literature class were asked to create a graphic vignette that makes visible someone, something, or some intangible concept that has been “disappeared,” or is otherwise “invisible.” Accompanying the graphic, students wrote statements of intent explaining what they tried to make visible, why they chose that topic, and how their image brings the subject matter to light. To make the students’ topics even more visible and to bring the topics more attention, the Cardinal is publishing a few of the impressive final products.


In this piece, I am making the sweatshops, which made the clothing on my back, visible. I am also spotlighting the thousands of people who are subjugated and forced into labor by American capitalism. So many people in America are detached from what we consume and unaware of where our “stuff” comes from. The darker and more human ramifications of consumerism are often overshadowed by the environmental consequences, and I wanted to make sure every side of the issue of consumerism is discussed.

American consumers often enjoy a glut of food, clothes, and gadgets without ever thinking about the people who made their surplus of belongings. Even egalitarian Seattleites can forget where their trendy clothes come from, and I am no exception. Although I focused on clothing made in sweatshops in this piece, sweatshop labor is a part of almost every industry.

The scene is drawn in charcoal, colored pencil, and graphite, creating a grey-scaled image that reflects the gravity of the situation (a common visual technique in film) and removes any indication of the race of the characters or of the location of the scene. The scene is not set in any one location, and the people speaking could be anyone, although they are likely American.

The characters discussing both their pride in being thrifty and their cool disregard of extra expenses are placed next to the workers who might not be making enough money to eat. I made this contrast to demonstrate how consumption of any kind, whether or not it is of sweatshop-produced goods, feels utterly pointless when there are people starving and working themselves to actual brain death around the world.

The characters are also there to serve the sweatshop, and the consumerism within the characters is sucked out of them slowly, feeding the deadly machine that is the sweatshop. The purpose of the characters’ conversations is not necessarily to make those who engage in similar conversations seem obtuse, but more to juxtapose the casualness of these types of conversations with the dark truths that hide behind them. For the conversation between the two figures in the upper left, I both mentioned in the conversation a brand that has been known to use sweatshop labor and alluded to another brand by sketching the logo on a shoe.

Drawing the connection between everyday objects and the laborers that made them is the most important exercise I hoped to incite in the viewers of this piece. The loud roar of sweatshops across the world can often seem immutable, in both senses of the word, so I am merely attempting to make sure everyone can at least hear the roar.

    I chose not to focus on an individual worker in this piece because addressing the problem of sweatshop labor cannot be done without acknowledging both the myriad of workers in any given sweatshop and the ever-expanding number of people forced into sweatshop labor every year. Sweatshop workers are belittled and disappeared by corporations and large companies. The workers in sweatshops often have very few rights and very low wages, and cannot afford to be ill even for a single day, because they will likely get fired and replaced.
    I chose to vignette the edges of the windows of the sweatshop and to draw the building stretching past the frame in order to show how expansive the problem of sweatshop labor is, and the unfortunate continuity of sweatshop labor