The stories were numbingly familiar to Legal Aid Foundation lawyers. Central Los Angeles garment workers like Jorge Posada told of being paid $1 or $2 an hour, of working 70 hours a week without overtime, of having two weeks' salary being withheld as a never-to-be-repaid "loan" to the company and of being fired if they complained.
Conventional lawsuits seeking back wages on behalf of individual garment workers have rarely been effective. Sweatshop operators often respond to legal or regulatory pressure by simply shutting down. Funding for state government attorneys specializing in the field was cut long ago. With at least 100,000 garment workers in Southern California, regulatory agencies are outflanked.
So on Thursday, in a desperate attempt to make a dent in what they call scandalous conditions that have long been rampant in the garment industry, legal aid lawyers announced they had filed unfair-business-practice lawsuits against three small contractors. They are seeking damages on behalf of every employee who has passed through the sewing factories during the last four years.
The desperation of the workers was underscored by the fact that most of the 29 plaintiffs were willing to file suit against companies that still employ them.
"We are afraid of being fired . . . but I have wanted to do this for a long time," said Posada, 35, a onetime shoe store owner in El Salvador who said he has worked the last six years for a Venice Boulevard garment firm owned by Thai and Latino immigrants.
The lawsuits seek a Superior Court injunction compelling the three contractors to raise pay to at least the $4.25 minimum wage, to pay overtime and to comply with health and safety codes.
The suits are unusual because they attempt to make use of state unfair-business-practice laws more commonly reserved for consumer complaints.
Typically, such lawsuits ask for damages on behalf of a large, unnamed class of customers.
Here, however, legal-aid lawyers propose that each firm be ordered to pay back wages to current and past employees, a number they estimate only as "hundreds." Attorney Anthony Mischel said it is difficult to estimate how much in back wages is owed. Mischel estimated that at one shop, Mr. Mario's, where 19 plaintiffs still work, workers are owed up to $10,000 for every year they have worked.
Money for workers who could not be immediately located would be deposited in the state's Industrial Relations Unpaid Wages Fund.
A representative of Mr. Mario's, at 1136 W. Venice Blvd., declined comment Thursday. A spokesman for a second, Annie Fashion, at 3465 S. Main St., was not available. The manager of the third firm, C & H Fashions, at 3708 S. Main St., who declined to identify himself, said the allegations were the fault of a former owner who departed earlier in the year. "We believe we do it the right way," he said.
Late Thursday Mischel said workers at Annie Fashion told him that all employees were sent home for the day after television crews tried to film the building, and that one plaintiff was told he would be fired unless he presented immigration documents today.
The shaky financial foundation of Los Angeles' garment industry--the same shakiness that contributes to the illegally low wages routinely paid by sweatshops--could make judgements difficult to collect. Although the shops must register with the state and post a bond, many have few assets.
"If a contractor right now tried to comply with the law, he couldn't survive" economically, Mischel said. "There are too many people out there breaking the law. If there was the ability to pay adequate wages, then workers wouldn't go to work for sub-minimum wages."