Sweatshops a Complex Problem

There he was, U.S. Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan himself, crouching low in an unmarked van outside a dilapidated old building in the New York garment district.

It was 1981. Donovan was preparing to leap from his hiding place and breathlessly race up two flights of stairs to personally help labor department investigators nab a small-time employer operating a dirty sweatshop there.

The employer was making a few extra bucks by cheating about 20 workers out of the pay they earned sewing designer-label dresses to be sold to wealthy customers in pricey department stores around the country.

As a publicity stunt it wasn't bad. There was TV film at 11 showing an angry-looking appointee of President Reagan vowing to end the exploitation of more than a million workers nationwide, mostly women, but many young children, too.

For decades before the Donovan show and several times since, the news media have dramatized the indecent and unlawful exploitation of garment industry workers.

Most recently, the Times ran a series of articles by staff writer Sonni Efron vividly describing the misery of the workers, especially in the relatively new garment districts in Orange County.

The hard work of those poverty-stricken workers who toil, albeit indirectly, for such big-name companies as L.A. Gear and Guess have helped the Los Angeles area become one of the world's fashion centers.

But the industry's elevated status here has done nothing for the workers, and nothing came of Donovan's flamboyant gesture to put a national spotlight on New York's garment sweatshops.

At the base of the industry pyramid are the million workers employed by thousands of small sewing shop operators known as contractors.

The contractors, who employ about 25 workers each, are themselves often abused by the far larger clothing manufacturers who pay them only rock-bottom dollar--or less.

The manufacturers say their pressure on the contractors stems from the cutthroat competition between manufacturers vying for sales to multibillion-dollar department store chains such as Sears and J. C. Penny and to individual retailers.

But the manufacturers insist that they are not responsible for, nor do they even know much about, the highly publicized abuse of workers on the contractors' payrolls. Respectable companies--and there are some--don't like the sleazy portion of their industry, and Bernard Brown, an industry spokesman, deplores it.

But Steve Nutter, regional director of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, argues that it's wrong to blame the contractors for the industry's brutal working conditions.

He points to the manufacturers and the giant retail chains as the culprits who in the past decade "have pushed the small contractors to the wall, paying them less and less. A skirt that brings the retailer $85 and the manufacturer $40 typically brings the small contractors who directly employ the workers only $5, and the worker earns $2.50."

A modest proposal has passed the California assembly to force manufacturers to pay more attention to the flagrant abuse of workers hired by contractors. The proposal, by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), would make manufacturers jointly liable with the contractors for all fines and penalties imposed on contractors who ignore minimum wage and hour laws and health and safety regulations. The state senate is expected to pass the bill, and there is a slim chance that our employer-oriented Gov. George Deukmejian won't veto it.

The governor need not worry about the impact of the bill on manufacturers. Before there can be any liability against manufacturers or contractors, companies abusing workers must first be caught, and there aren't enough labor law enforcement officers to make the exploiters give more than a fleeting thought to that remote possibility.

Even if they are caught, as they are on rare occasions, they regard the penalties as a negligible cost of doing business. Last year, those caught in Southern California paid fines that totaled less than 1/50 of 1% of the gross revenue of the $6-billion-a-year industry in Orange and Los Angeles Counties.

Still, it will help if the manufacturers are forced by law to pay some attention to the abuse of those who make the clothes.

The basic problem for workers will remain unresolved, however: a lack of enforcement of state and federal worker-protection laws and of the federal immigration law that penalizes employers who knowingly use illegal aliens as their main labor source.

Wages have declined in recent years in all but unionized companies, and unions represent only a fraction of the nation's garment workers--mostly in the Northeast. They represent only about 5% of the workers in Southern California, where illegal aliens still make up a major part of the work force, as they have for decades.

As long as there is a seemingly endless supply of illegals desperate for almost any kind of job at any wage, the situation isn't likely to improve significantly. The only real hope is to penalize employers who knowingly hire the illegals, as mandated by the 1986 federal immigration law.

Some employers say they cannot tell if an applicant is here legally and therefore eligible for a job. Others who oppose the law say it leads to discrimination against all foreign-looking workers.

Those objections can best be overcome by using tamper-resistant Social Security cards, along with a system for employers to easily verify the Social Security numbers of job applicants. It would work much like the system used so successfully to validate credit cards.

No legislation is going to end worker abuse, but the situation can be improved if the Hayden proposal becomes law, present worker-protection laws are more rigorously enforced, and, most important, if our much-improved immigration laws are adequately enforced.

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