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Continued U.S. Ban on At-Home Garment Work Draws Support

Times Labor Writer

Cautioning against a return to turn-of-the-century sweatshop conditions, a diverse group of business, labor, religious, immigrants rights, women’s group representatives and welfare fraud experts assailed a federal proposal to lift a 47-year-old ban on the manufacture of women’s apparel in the home at a hearing in Los Angeles Wednesday.

“Lifting the ban in women’s apparel would give unscrupulous people a free rein to exploit workers,” said Bernard Brown, president of the Coalition of Apparel Industries in California.

The Labor Department hearing in Los Angeles, scheduled to conclude today, is the fourth in a series of seven scheduled by the department.

The department published an “advanced notice of proposed rule making,” the first formal step for lifting the ban, in late December. The prohibition was enacted in 1942 to reduce exploitation of workers and minimum wage violations.

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Labor Department officials contend that eliminating the ban would provide increased flexibility for employees and improve the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Thus far, the overwhelming number of witnesses at hearings across the country have testified against the proposal, and that was the case Wednesday, when more than a dozen witnesses spoke against it and none trumpeted its merits.

“Lifting the ban would thwart the purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act and stimulate a depression of wages, a depression of working conditions, and encourage the use of child labor,” said Peter Schey, executive director of the National Center for Immigrants’ Rights.

He said 30,000 workers, most of them recent immigrants or refugees, work illegally in their homes in Southern California, and he predicted that the number would increase to 100,000 if the ban is removed.

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Sara Martinez, a social worker at El Rescate (the Rescue), a social service agency for Central American immigrants and refugees, agreed.

“Any lifting of the ban will reinforce an already burgeoning black market economy that exploits workers,” she said.

“The garment industry will revert to the home sweatshop of a bygone era,” said Max Mont, West Coast director of the Jewish Labor Committee. “Homework conditions are inherently impossible to police.”

Urged by Bush

During the presidential campaign last fall, George Bush urged lifting the ban after the Labor Department secured approval from the Office of Management and Budget to eliminate homework prohibitions in five other apparel-related fields effective Jan. 8. A federal court lawsuit has been filed by three unions challenging the elimination of those prohibitions.

The hearings on women’s apparel manufacture are scheduled to be completed in early May, and the Department may take several months to decide whether to go forward.

California has a ban on apparel work in the home, but violations are widespread and there are inadequate inspectors to enforce the law, according to state officials.

The California ban would not be overturned if the federal ban is lifted. Federal action would, however, “create political pressure to change the law in California so businesses could stay competitive with the rest of the country,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, who also urged the Labor Department not to change existing law.

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Several witnesses Wednesday blasted the suggestion that it is advantageous to working women to labor in the home. “Proponents . . . claim to have the best interests of women in mind,” said Phoebe Jones-Schellenberg of the Wages for Housework Campaign, a national organization of low-wage women workers.

‘Opposite Is the Case’

“Using feminist rhetoric for ‘choices’ and ‘opportunities in the workplace,’ they claim to be responding to women’s demands for flexible work hours and child care. In fact, just the opposite is the case,” she said. “Industrial homework imposes on women two jobs for way below the price of one--a second job at below minimum wage on top of the first job of unwaged housework and child rearing.”

Several witnesses also took sharp issue with the Labor Department’s contention that it could ensure that those who work at home are not exploited by instituting a system to certify employers and identify employees. Department officials have said employers would be fined if they did not set up piece rates so that minimum wage standards could be enforced and accurate records of hours maintained.

Linda Johnson, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women, and William R. Robertson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said the department had been unable to monitor the homework program in the knitted outer-wear industry, where it was first tested.

“Have you ever tried to keep track of your (hours) while at home?” Johnson asked. “The phone rings, someone comes to the door, the baby cries, the pot boils over, you forget to record your time,” she said.

Schey and Martinez also said that the overwhelmingly immigrant and often undocumented work force that probably would be doing garment work at home would be unlikely to file complaints about being underpaid with state or federal officials, for fear of drawing the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and being deported.

Donald H. Andrews, an investigator for the Orange County district attorney’s welfare fraud unit, said homework promotes welfare fraud, child labor and an expansion of the state’s multibillion-dollar underground economy, leading to diminished tax revenues.

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