Your exposure of the degrading exploitation of garment workers in Orange County performs an urgent public service and the work of your staff writer Sonni Efron is an achievement in the best traditions of journalism (Part A, Nov. 26-28). This should, hopefully, stimulate a new movement for reform.
But your editorial ("Clean Up the Sweatshops," Nov. 29) falls short of offering any drastic new remedies commensurate with the gravity of the conditions in the industry. Your call for publicly exposing manufacturers is a slender reed, indeed, to depend upon.
As a member of the Advisory Committee on Garment Manufacturing (appointed by the labor commissioner pursuant to a provision of the 1981 Garment Manufacturing Act) and as its elected chairman from 1982 through 1985, I had the opportunity for close observation of the workings of the garment trade. Several meetings of the committee jointly offered important legislation.
It is a low-capitalization, labor-intensive industry. A few machines, a place to work, a few employees requiring only the scantiest training or home workers willing to rent machines, a manufacturer willing to give you work--and you're in business as a contractor (or further down the line as a subcontractor). Contractors come and go, they change locations or names or nominal ownerships.
In a business that is a highly competitive to begin with, this situation lends itself to the most cutthroat forms of competition--with the prime manufacturer squeezing the terms to ever lower levels. Labor law violations and debasement of workers prevail.
You are right in calling for a beefing up of enforcement personnel, maintaining the bar against homework at the state and federal levels, and implementing the hot cargo laws. But these are not enough.
A further ingredient is essential: New state legislation is needed, making the prime manufacturer jointly liable with his contractors for the latter's violation of the labor code. This would fix responsibility squarely where it belongs.
The prime movers (retailers, manufacturers, jobbers as the case may be) cannot escape the obligation to scrutinize the operations of those whom they contract with to do their work. And they cannot plead ignorance of the situation in the industry.
Several members of the advisory committee who represented contractors concurred in the effort to get joint liability legislation introduced in the state Legislature. They recognized that such a measure would not only protect workers, but also shield contractors, who wish to observe the law, against cutthroat competition.
A joint liability law--and unionization of the workers--would go a long way toward bringing stability to the industry and decent working conditions to the workers.