The Reagan Administration Thursday lifted a 46-year-old ban on at-home work in five apparel-related industries, setting off protests from union officials who called the move a “sneak attack” on workers’ rights.
The new regulation, long a part of the conservative agenda, will go into effect Jan. 9. Under the new rule, people no longer will be prohibited from manufacturing many apparel items at home, including gloves, buttons, handkerchiefs and some jewelry.
In announcing the rule, Labor Secretary Ann Dore McLaughlin said that it “adds a measure of worker flexibility and economic freedom” to the work force.
Critics, however, charged that the change will leave thousands of workers in the garment industry vulnerable to exploitation because the federal government cannot adequately protect them. Moreover, several union officials asserted that the move, coming two days after the presidential election, was blatantly political.
“The Reagan Administration has cynically waited for American people to cast their ballots before launching a sneak attack on workers’ rights,” said Jay Mazur, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
“The lame-duck White House has given the green light to junk the ban on industrial homework and condemn countless American workers to exploitation and sweatshop conditions,” Mazur said.
A White House official denied the charge, saying that “clearly, politics did not play any part” in the rule change.
The Fair Labor Standards Act since 1942 has prohibited workers in seven industries from working at home because the law’s provisions involving minimum wage, maximum hours and child labor could not be enforced.
However, the Reagan Administration, stating that it could monitor the law’s provisions, lifted the ban in 1984 on one industry, knitted outerwear.
Thursday’s announcement removed the restriction on five others: gloves and mittens; embroideries; buttons and buckles; handkerchiefs, and any jewelry in which production does not involve hazardous processes or substances.
Fear Further Steps
Now, only one industry, women’s apparel, is covered by the at-home restriction, and union officials fear that restriction will also be removed under the incoming Bush Administration.
No jobs outside the garment industry ever were included in the ban because other industries were deemed unlikely to be conducted at home. “In this industry, all you need is a bunch of sewing machines,” one garment union official said.
Removal of the ban ends a long, bitter struggle between the Reagan Administration and labor activists over whether to lift it. The Administration and its conservative supporters have argued that the prohibition puts unfair restrictions on the economy and prevents women with small children from earning a living at home.
However, citing numerous cases of abuse in “sweatshops” across the nation--particularly in high-manufacturing areas like Los Angeles and New York--union activists have argued that removing federal restrictions on at-home garment manufacturing would exacerbate the problems of low wages and poor working conditions, particularly for immigrants and uneducated Americans.
Concern for Coercion
“The typical homeworker is the Dominican woman in New York or the Mexican woman in Los Angeles who may be illegal and forced to take work and subject herself to exploitation and create hazards in her home,” said John Burke, spokesman for the garment workers’ union.
However, McLaughlin said that, because millions of women have entered the work force in recent years, there is a demand for “flexible alternatives, including the ability to work in one’s own home.” The federal government “should enhance, not impede, workers’ choices,” she said.
The new rule stipulates that employers who wish to hire people to work in their own homes must first obtain certificates of authorization from the Labor Department. The certificates must be renewed every two years, providing the workers’ names, addresses and languages.
Burke, who said that his union plans to sue to block implementation of the new rule, contended that it is impossible for the Labor Department to “police what’s going on” in the at-home work.
Notes ‘Strong Penalties’
Bob Zachariasiewicz, deputy director of information and public affairs at the Labor Department, asserted that “stringent record-keeping requirements and strong penalties” will ensure compliance.
Union officials said that 18 states, including California, have some form of restriction on home manufacturing. However, the unions said that without a federal ban, the state laws likely will not be enforced.
Likening the situation to voting rights laws, Burke said that “leadership has always come from the federal government.”