Mother's Plight Turns a Home Into Sweatshop

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Valladares began his career as a garment worker last fall. He was 7 years old.

The small, intensely shy boy worked every day after school and all day Saturday in a small apartment in a Santa Ana barrio, helping his mother produce designer clothing for a major Los Angeles junior sportswear label. He worked until at least nine o'clock every night, his mother said.

Eventually, he fell so far behind in school that he was demoted from second to first grade.

"There were times when he cried," said his mother, Juana Valladares. "And I would tell him he had to help me."

Valladares, a 36-year-old immigrant from Iguala, Mexico, was desperate. She spoke almost no English and had just given birth to her fifth child. She couldn't seem to sew fast enough to put food on the table.

Their ordeal ended abruptly nine months later, when federal labor investigators raided their apartment, found two sewing machines, and learned that David, his mother and his 10- and 14-year-old sisters had been working more than 40 hours a week for wages that averaged about $1.45 an hour.

Ultimately, the sweatshop owner who employed them signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Labor to repay more than $22,700 in minimum and overtime wages owed to the Valladares family, according to court documents obtained from the department by the Los Angeles Times under the Freedom of Information Act. That sum included nearly $3,200 in back wages owed the little boy and $3,650 owed his 10-year-old sister, Maria Elena.

The sweatshop has closed, and the Valladares family has not yet seen any of the money.

Juana Valladares told her story while sitting beside her sewing machine on one of two beds in the one-room apartment she shares with her husband, five children and a boarder. While the older children bounced on the beds and David played with 1-year-old Jacqueline, the other family members chimed in.

At one point, Valladares pulled out a tattered spiral notebook in which she had carefully recorded how many garments she had stitched each week and how many cents she was paid per piece.

"See, shorts, 49 each," she explained, speaking through an interpreter. "When I had help to sew the elastic on . . . I could sew one in 15 minutes. If not, half an hour. Forty-nine cents. . . . Here, in two weeks I earned $372."

Did she think she was being underpaid?

"I never imagined," she said. "What I tried was to get money to eat. . . . I didn't have any money for baby food."

She began to sob. Her children fell silent. David stared down at the tattered carpet.

Although David and Maria Elena are the youngest children found toiling in the Orange County garment industry, labor officials have documented a widespread pattern of severe abuses of Asian and Latino immigrants.

In the last 18 months, state labor inspectors have come across 13 other child garment workers whose ages ranged from 13 to 17, said Deputy Labor Commissioner Craig Cubberly. He said enforcement efforts so far have touched only "the tip of the iceberg."

Rolene Otero, director of enforcement for the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage & Hour Division in Santa Ana, estimates that about half of the approximately 400 garment contractors in Orange County are giving piecework to home workers like Juana Valladares. Sewing at home is a criminal misdemeanor in California, and sewing women's clothing at home is a violation of federal labor law.

"The number of illegal aliens willing to work for $1 an hour is so high that there's little need to get children," said Otero, who spearheaded the raids that nabbed Valladares' employer. "But what we see is a 15-year-old claiming to be 18. And most home workers, when they get into a pinch, will get their kids to help out."

Valladares was in a pinch. Before the baby, she had spent a year and a half sewing women's clothing for Addison Fashions, one of a dozen sweatshops in a light-industrial complex behind Harbor Boulevard in Santa Ana. But she wasn't earning enough to be able to afford a baby sitter for Jacqueline.

With help from the shop owner, Ho Van Chien, Valladares said, she rented two sewing machines for $55 a month and began to do piecework in her apartment. Chien and his wife agreed to deliver the pieces and pick up the finished garments, Valladares said, provided she would produce the same number of garments she had made while working in the factory.

But with the new baby to look after, she couldn't sew fast enough. They threatened to fire her.

"Sometimes we worked until one or two in the morning, but we couldn't produce as much as over there," Valladares said. "I had to put David to work."

Each day, when the little boy arrived home from school at 1 p.m., he would glue together labels--the brand-name label and the tag with the fabric contents. Then Maria Elena would sew the labels into the garments.

"She knows how to operate a sewing machine, she can sew real good," Valladares said proudly.

Sometimes, Maria Elena would sew the collars and cuffs for sweat shirts. David would turn them inside out and smooth them, and their mother would attach them to the garment.

"I did a lot of sweat shirts, I used to make 150 in two days," Valladares said. "And the children would help me."

Valladares pulled out one black sweat set, a leftover from a batch she had sewn. She said the Chiens allowed her to keep it as a Christmas present. She said she was paid 55 cents for the designer sweat shirt, which had lace and fabric decoration, and 45 cents for the matching sweat pants with elasticized waist--a set that would retail for roughly $25.

David and Maria Elena worked every afternoon, and sometimes another sister, 14-year-old Elinora, helped them. Their stepfather pitched in when he came home from work, and the entire family worked on Saturdays.

"Sometimes I would come home at midnight and she was still working," her husband said.

The worst part, Valladares said, was when the landlord in their previous apartment, a two-bedroom space for which they paid $710 a month, said the sewing machines were damaging the carpeting in the apartment and threatened to evict them if the machines stayed inside.

They put the machines out in the courtyard, and her husband built a shelter to keep the rain off. Valladares said she worked outdoors through the winter with Maria and David, the infant in a carriage, and a space heater to keep them warm. Once, she said, the baby's blanket caught fire on the heater, but she was able to snatch it away in time.

"Sometimes I didn't even have time to cook," she said.

After a while, it became clear the work was taking a toll on the children.

"The teachers sent me a note saying the kids were way behind," Valladares said. "(David) had to go back from second to first grade. Then they were telling Maria Elena that she wasn't doing good."

David, now 8, is too shy to talk to strangers about what happened to him. He said only that he liked school. Then he climbed on the bed and hid his face behind his sister. But when asked whether he was proud to have helped his mother, he answered with a big smile. "Si!" he said.

Maria Elena, now 11, said she, too, was proud to have helped her mother, but sometimes it made her sleepy in school. "A little bit. Because we went to bed late at night, around 12 midnight. And I had to do my homework."

Ho Van Chien told federal labor inspectors that he did not know the Valladares children were working on the garments, federal documents show. Juana Valladares disputes this.

In a brief interview at his shop--which closed during the investigation in July, reopened under a new name in September, and then closed again two weeks ago--Chien said he did not know that American laws prohibited sewing at home.

"I didn't know that people can't take the pieces home to work on," Chien said in Vietnamese through an interpreter.

"I didn't know all the laws and regulations before," he added. "Now, they told me to comply with all these regulations and I am complying."

State records, however, throw doubt on Chien's claims. On Aug. 18, 1988--a year before the federal investigation began--Addison Fashions was visited by state labor inspectors and fined $400 for failure to have the garment contracting license required under California law, said Roger Miller, Southern California regional manager for the state Division of Labor Standards' Bureau of Field Enforcement.

Two weeks later, Chien came in to take the licensing test. He answered all but six of the 40 written questions correctly, Miller said.

"Looking at his exam, he missed the question regarding home work," Miller said. "He also had an oral exam in Vietnamese. It was read to him by one of our staff people. When they miss a question, the staffer goes through and explains to the person the questions they missed. . . . On that particular one, they would have explained to him that you cannot take garments home; it's illegal."

Chien was fined $560 for the child-labor violations. In addition to the $21,800 for the Valladares family, Chien also agreed to pay $31,700 in back wages and overtime to 23 other Vietnamese and Latino workers, including one Vietnamese woman who was also found to be sewing at home, documents show. Valladares said many more Asian workers were in fact taking work home, but were afraid to speak to the investigators.

Valladares still has the labels she sewed onto the garments: "My Boyfriend" and "En Chante."

According to federal documents, Chien's shop was sewing the garments as a subcontractor for Su Enterprises Corp. of Garden Grove. Su is a broker that employs about 13 subcontractors like Chien and produces clothing under its own label, "My Boyfriend."

Su Enterprises, in turn, had contracted to produce goods for En Chante Inc., a Los Angeles dress and sportswear maker with annual sales of $40 million and a client list that includes J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart and Sears, the documents show.

Su Enterprises, through its attorney, declined comment on the Valladares case.

Arthur Gordon, president of En Chante, said he did not know Chien and did not know or approve of the subcontracting arrangement under which his garments were being produced. He said the company does business only with licensed contractors and requires each to sign a form, when delivering any garments, certifying that the goods have been produced in accordance with all state and federal laws.

"We police our contractors," Gordon said. "If those contractors sub out, then they have to police their own."

Gordon said that as soon as he was contacted by federal officials concerning the abuses at Addison Fashions, he instructed Su and his other contractors that any labor violations by them or their subcontractors would be grounds for dismissal.

"This is the first time it's happened, and I hope it'll be the last," he said.

Valladares has a green card now, but she has yet to find a job. Her husband keeps telling her to look for a new line of work. But she says sewing is the only business she knows, and she fears she's been blacklisted.

"I don't know what to do now," she said. "Sometimes I want to send the children back to Mexico."

As David made the baby laugh by pelting her with balloons, his mother wiped her worn face and began to laugh as she told how one Garden Grove sewing-shop owner stopped her before she set a foot in his door.

"No work for you, Juana," he told her. "You know why? Because you talk."

Next: New enforcement methods.

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