Targets Get Bigger in Sweatshop War : Garment industry: U.S. takes legal action against six sewing contractors in L.A. area for labor abuse. Investigation shifts its focus to manufacturers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a widening crackdown on sweatshops that serve the Los Angeles garment industry, the U.S. Department of Labor has obtained consent decrees from two sewing contractors to halt abusive labor practices and has filed suit against four other suspected offenders.

One Garden Grove garment company, Su Enterprises Corp., signed a consent decree after federal investigators found a 7-year-old boy had been working on its clothing.

Federal attorneys are trying to persuade the Los Angeles manufacturer whose goods Su was making to sign a similar agreement. The manufacturer, En Chante Inc.--a dress and sportswear maker with sales of $40 million and a customer list that includes J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart and Sears--says it has tightened controls on its contractors.

Another Orange County sewing shop, T&T; Fashions of Santa Ana, agreed to repay 13 workers more than $13,000 in back wages, federal court documents show. One worker had been earning an average of $1.11 an hour, federal labor investigators said, although the shop owner denied this.

The agreements are the first sign that the crackdown launched last summer is beginning to reach not just small immigrant-owned businesses that contract to sew clothing, but also the larger manufacturers for whom the garments are made.

The case against Su Enterprises is the first time in recent memory that a garment company has signed a consent decree after its clothes were found in a sweatshop where minimum wage, overtime or child labor laws were violated, said Rolene Otero, director of enforcement for the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division in Santa Ana.

Previous state and federal labor enforcement efforts usually have targeted only sweatshop owners who paid their workers less than the $4.25 hourly minimum wage. Manufacturers who did business with the sweatshops rarely have been prosecuted.

Indeed, some manufacturers have profited by sending their garments out to be sewn at rock-bottom prices, while insisting they had no idea that the workers who did the sewing were being underpaid or abused, according to labor officials and garment industry reformers.

Su farmed out En Chante's work to a smaller company, Addision Fashions of Garden Grove. An inspection last summer revealed that Addision had failed to pay minimum wage and overtime to its workers, and also was having workers sew garments at home, in violation of state and federal law, according to internal investigative documents obtained from the U.S. Department of Labor under the Freedom of Information Act.

One of those home workers, Juana Valladares, and three of her children, ages 7, 10 and 14, sewed En Chante's designer clothes for wages that averaged about $1.45 an hour, documents show.

Last fall, Addision's owner signed a consent decree agreeing to repay 28 workers $54,563 in back wages--including nearly $3,200 owed 7-year-old David Valladares and nearly $3,652 owed his 10-year-old sister, Maria Elena.

Addision has gone out of business, however, and so far has paid only $3,960 of the $54,563 owed, Otero said.

Three other Orange County shops sewing En Chante goods for Su Enterprises also were found to be violating labor laws, according to federal documents and attorneys for En Chante.

Su Enterprises' owner, Andrew Su, and the company's attorney, Michael T. Sun, did not return telephone calls requesting comment.

On Jan. 10, a consent judgment signed by Su Enterprises was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Without admitting guilt, the company agreed to a restraining order barring it and its contractors and agents from violating labor laws in the future.

If they do, Otero said, the federal government will seek to have them found in contempt of court.

"This basically means he (Su) is accepting responsibility to see that his subcontractors are complying with the Fair Labor Standards Act," Otero said.

Federal attorneys are now attempting to persuade En Chante to sign a similar consent decree, Otero and other labor officials said.

"We had the little sewer, then Addision, now Su," said Herbert A. Goldstein, regional director for the Wage and Hour Division in San Francisco. "We're trying to lead it all the way up to the top."

En Chante's attorney, Alan M. Brunswick, said the company has offered to sign an out-of-court settlement with the Labor Department. En Chante already has begun a new policy requiring its contractors to inspect shops once a week to make sure workers who sew En Chante products are being paid properly, Brunswick said.

In addition, contractors delivering finished garments to En Chante now are required to sign a pledge that the clothing was made in accordance with labor laws, he said. "Obviously the government can't do all the policing that needs to be done of the thousands of subcontractors around L.A. County," Brunswick said. "That's the job we're assuming by this policy. We're not going to go around and police the subcontractors; we're forcing our contractors to do that."

Goldstein said the government crackdown, and the ensuing publicity, has persuaded other Los Angeles garment makers caught underpaying their workers to hand over the back wages rather than risk being hauled into court.

"They don't want to see their names in the paper, so it makes them much easier to deal with," Goldstein said.

Manufacturers and other labor industry sources, however, have warned that over-regulation is crippling domestic manufacturing. They have argued that they cannot hire a fleet of labor police. Requiring them to do so will only push more of the $6-billion-a-year Los Angeles garment industry overseas, they say.

In other legal action, within the last two months the Labor Department also has filed suit against four other small garment contractors in Santa Ana and Garden Grove.

Three of the sweatshop owners have closed their doors and could not be reached for comment. The government is seeking to collect at least $320,000 in damages and wages allegedly owed 49 workers, Otero said.

The owners of the fourth shop, Mimi's Fashions of Santa Ana, denied underpaying their workers and insisted the labor investigation was unfair. Dang Thai Tran, 36, and his wife, Hoa Thi Nguyen, said they are paid so little by the manufacturers that they themselves are barely earning the minimum wage.

"Sometimes we put in 20 hours a day but the Labor Department doesn't take that into consideration," Nguyen said in Vietnamese, speaking through an interpreter. "All they care about is what we owe the employees. . . . Why don't they go after the big manufacturers instead of picking on the little shops like us?"

Tran produced a dress he said took nearly three hours to sew for which the manufacturer paid him $3.50.

"Why doesn't the Labor Department go to the shops and ask us how much we get for one garment . . . and ask us to sit down and sew it?" he asked indignantly. "See how long it takes us. If they did that they would go (fine) the manufacturer because they didn't pay us the minimum wage."

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