Launching its most ambitious drive to crack down on Southern California's troubled garment industry, state labor investigators said Wednesday that they will inspect 1,000 apparel contractors and manufacturers this year, a sharp boost from 1995.
Jose Millan, the state's interim labor commissioner in San Francisco, said the increased effort stems largely from the shocking discovery last year of Thai sewing workers in El Monte who toiled in what authorities called slave-like conditions.
As a result, Millan said, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement will add 10 compliance officers this month in Los Angeles and Orange counties to handle the increased caseload. The division currently has 14 investigators focusing on the apparel trade.
"This year we're going to turn the corner in the garment industry," Millan said.
Last year state officials inspected 703 garment facilities, up from 500 in 1994. The state assessed about $4.5 million in civil penalties, roughly the same as in 1994. The violations last year included 102 cases involving workers' compensation, 72 for cash pay to avoid taxes and 43 for employing children.
Joe Rodriguez, head of the Garment Contractors Assn. of Southern California, applauded the state's announcement. Responsible contractors, he said, are "being drowned by the unfair competition engendered by the illegitimate shops."
Similarly, labor leaders in the garment industry welcomed the division's stepped-up staffing and inspection goals for 1996, but noted that it's still not enough.
About 5,000 registered garment contractors and manufacturers and an estimated 2,000 unregistered shops operate in Southern California.
"If [investigators] do 1,000 inspections, they'll hit a shop maybe every six or seven years," said Steve Nutter, Western regional director of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees in Los Angeles.
Nutter added that the state needs to do more thorough inspections and to put more pressure on manufacturers, who control the work given to contractors.
The state's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement is entering the fourth year of the Targeted Industries Partnership Program, in which state and federal labor and safety officials are jointly enforcing labor laws in California's garment and agricultural industries.
Over the last three years, state staffing for the joint program hasn't changed. But the El Monte case uncovered in August, which made national headlines, has spurred both state and federal labor officials to put more emphasis on Southern California's garment industry.
For example, the U.S. Labor Department last month released a list of "good guy" apparel retailers and manufacturers to spotlight companies that ensure their garments are made in law-abiding factories, not sweatshops.
Brian Taverner, head of the federal wage and hour division in Santa Ana, said he has added two compliance officers in Orange County in recent months. Taverner said federal officials this year plan to put more pressure on garment retailers to be responsible for the production of the clothes they sell.
Cal/OSHA, another partner in the program, isn't expecting staffing increases. In fact, with half its budget coming from the federal government, the state safety and health agency may see its budget cut this year.
Still, Mark Carleson, deputy chief of Cal/OSHA, said he expects to send a safety compliance officer on each of 1,000 garment inspections. "We plan to participate fully," he said.