Sweatshops Didn’t Go Away

By Karen Loew

Published March 23, 2011, issue of April 01, 2011.
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Garment industry sweatshops are hardly a thing of the past in New York City: They are a feature of commerce today. The New York State Department of Labor has found it necessary to maintain particular vigilance for several decades, founding the Apparel Industry Task Force in 1987 to monitor the city’s largest manufacturing sector. Today, that task force has a staff of 30, including multilingual investigators, who also comprise the Fair Wages Task Force. The chief of both units, Lorelei Salas, director of strategic enforcement, said that their missions overlap because “the same conditions you find in the garment industry, you can find in other low-wage industries.”

The conditions Ling Nan Zheng endured at a garment factory on East Broadway in Chinatown sound like standard sweatshop gothic: Zheng often sewed shirts on her machine from 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. The factory had no heat in cold weather or air-conditioning in hot weather, and the interior air was dusty and hard to breathe, Zheng said. The workers didn’t always get paid: The company, a subcontractor for Liberty Apparel, didn’t uniformly pay minimum wage or overtime, she said. That was throughout the 1990s. In 1999, Zheng and other workers sued Liberty Apparel for back wages. A decade later, in February 2009, they were awarded $600,000. Zheng, who spoke to the Forward at the workers’ center of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA), said that the money has not yet been paid, and she’s still owed $5,000.

“When we were working there, we didn’t know anything about rights, so we didn’t try to organize,” Zheng said, speaking in Mandarin Chinese with translation by workers’ center member Jerry Weng. But when her factory shut abruptly and the owner ran off without paying back wages, two dozen employees filed a lawsuit. Today, Zheng lives in Queens with her husband and son and no longer works in the garment industry. “I think American law is in some ways really weak,” she said. Leaders of such groups as the CSWA and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops hope the Liberty case will help strengthen manufacturers’ accountability — a cause they continue to fight for, as with a federal lawsuit filed in February against the clothing retailer Caché, alleging nonpayment of overtime. “The subcontracting system is really bad for the workers,” Zheng said.

Salas, of the state labor department, said her investigators have ways of holding manufacturers accountable, such as physically attaching bright orange tags to goods they deem improperly produced, so that the items cannot be sold. Because factory laborers often work nights and weekends, that’s when investigators make their rounds, she said. As part of the task force’s creation, all apparel producers were required to register with the state — today that’s 1,100 businesses — supplying identification and proof that they provide unemployment- and workers-compensation insurance, among other things.

“The industry has become a little more difficult to investigate,” Salas said. “Employers know to expect us. They know we’ll be coming in. They go to great lengths to hide violations,” she added, noting that employers use cheat sheets listing answers to the questions investigators may pose. “We’re facing a lot more fear from employees, who do not want to lose their jobs.”

A top priority now is educating employers and employees about new state laws intended to protect workers’ rights, such as the Wage Theft Protection Act, which increases penalties on employers who don’t pay minimum wage or overtime.

Is the state of the industry better than it was a century ago? “That’s a really difficult question to answer,” Salas said. “There are more laws in place now. It’s a matter of how much enforcement we can do. We try hard to adapt our strategies to be effective.”

But, she said, “It’s kind of hard to quantify whether conditions have greatly improved.”

Contact Karen Loew at loew@forward.com


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