Snuffing out sweatshops is no simple matter, authorities say.
They must educate new immigrants who have never heard of the minimum wage and battle shop owners who insist they cannot afford to pay it. And, in the case of Southeast Asians, authorities say they must try to change deeply rooted traditional attitudes toward work and pay.
In recent interviews, several garment shop owners insisted that although they pay workers by the piece, instead of the $4.25-an-hour minimum wage, workers who sew fast can make as much as $7 an hour. They agreed that those who sew slowly sometimes cannot earn the minimum wage. But they defended this practice as being in keeping with the Vietnamese tradition of apprenticeship.
Duong Thi Huong, who works in a small family sewing business near Westminster's Little Saigon, said the shop earns $2 for each ladies' knit jacket delivered to a Los Angeles manufacturer. But the shop must pick up the garment pieces from the cutter, stitch it, attach the buttons and deliver the finished product, leaving only about 30 cents of profit per garment, she said.
So far, the shop has been able to produce only 100 garments a day, and has lost $4,000 to $5,000 in the past two months, she said.
"I get $2 for the jacket. I have to pay $1 for the worker," Duong explained through an interpreter. She pointed to a 23-year-old Asian woman struggling to fit a sleeve. "That girl can make 10 jackets a day. She's not very fast. She just came here."
Asked about the minimum wage, Duong replied: "We do pay regular workers the minimum wage. . . . It's true that the trainees may make only $2 an hour because they don't know how to sew . . .
"Actually, we don't have any regular employees because we are new," Duong added. "If people want to come here to get training, they're welcome."
In Vietnam, apprentices may work for three to six months before they begin to draw pay and might sometimes have to pay for their training, other owners said. However, California law requires a minimum training wage of $3.60.
Making matters worse, state and federal officials say, the city officials with whom these new Americans first come into contact often do not help enforce state and federal laws. Sometimes they thwart them.
Applicants for a sewing license in Santa Ana, for example, are told to apply for a state garment contracting license and state and federal identification numbers but are not required to have them, said Cathy Maldonado, who processes the licenses for the city.
Santa Ana will license home sewing for individuals and a one-year permit costs $330, Maldonado said. "I would say 15% of home occupational permits are for garments," she said.
Maldonado said she had never been told that sewing women's garments at home is a violation of both state and federal law.
Robert Burton, a supervisor for the special investigations unit of the Orange County district attorney's office, said his office has been trying to persuade cities to stop selling home sewing licenses.
The practice infuriates state labor officials, who complain that they raid home sweatshops only to be confronted by angry people brandishing city licenses. The offenders cannot understand why they are being fined for an activity they paid money to be licensed to perform.
"You can't license an illegal function," Burton said. "But in my opinion, business licenses are revenue-producing things, and I think that's what they're concerned with more than anything else."
In Westminster, which does try to make applicants abide by the law, business licensing clerk Pam Narz says she tells all comers that sewing at home is illegal.
"A lot of them clearly didn't know that. They can't believe it," she said. "Sometimes I have the clear feeling that they're going to do it even without a license. And often we never see them again."
Vietnamese community leaders acknowledge that some of the shops do pay their workers less than the minimum wage. But, they note, these new entrepreneurs also are providing jobs for refugees who otherwise would collect welfare.
Community leaders warn that manufacturers and shop owners cannot pay more and compete with garments imported from Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, where wages are even lower.
"Without the so-called sweatshops, there wouldn't be any garment industry here," said Phong Duc Tran, chairman of the Little Saigon Community Development Organization. "You call it a sweatshop, but we are used to it."