Hemmed in: Sweatshops abuse laborers Changes in industry spark a resurgence of illegal operations

October 29, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- The labels are of big name designers and "no names." The clothes are found on Fifth Avenue and in suburban discount stores. The goods are "made in the USA" in garment workshops from Los Angeles to New York by the Joanna Chengs and Elida DeDiazs of the world.

Ms. Cheng, an American citizen who emigrated from Hong Kong, earns a union wage, gets paid weekly and receives benefits. Ms. DeDiaz has worked in seven sewing shops since she arrived from the Dominican Republic 18 months ago. A former boss owes her several thousand dollars in back wages. She doesn't have a green card.

Increasingly, officials say, women like Ms. DeDiaz are working long hours for little pay in conditions reminiscent of the sweatshops that dominated Manhattan's Lower East Side through the 1920s.

This flourishing underground economy affects jobs, immigration and commerce in cities as diverse as Miami and San Francisco.

"It's a growing problem, and all the evidence shows it is a growing problem," said U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who has urged retailers to help police the industry.

"Our surveys reveal that there are working conditions that many Americans would find appalling even in the Third World."

The discovery of a sweatshop in El Monte, Calif., that held more than 70 Thai nationals against their will made headlines this year.

The workers sewed clothes for up to 115 hours a week for as little as $1.60 an hour and under threat of rape or murder.

Mr. Reich seized on the El Monte situation -- although extreme by all accounts -- to publicize the problem.

In New York last week John J. Sweeney, the newly elected president of the AFL-CIO, led 2,000 unionists through New York's Garment District to protest sweatshop conditions. Mr. Reich, also at the rally, has pressed apparel manufacturers to join the fight against abuses.

Although some industry groups say tougher enforcement is what's needed, the National Retail Federation has urged its members to do what they can to help.

"We're trying to push them to push their manufacturers," said Mr. Reich. "They can't turn a blind eye to sweatshop conditions in the United States."

Legal and illegal, side by side

In a city famous for fashion, where off-the-rack reproductions are manufactured within blocks of designer-label suits, state investigators estimate that about 2,000 illegal shops coexist with about 4,000 licensed sewing contractors.

The shops can be found in windowless garages in Brooklyn's Asian community of Sunset Park, loft buildings in midtown Manhattan (the heart of the garment district between Seventh and Eighth avenues), storefronts in Queens.

"These sweatshops that gave birth to our union, that got eradicated in mid-century, are now back with a vengeance," said Rebecca Kessinger, an organizer for the New York-based UNITE, the merger of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' and International Ladies Garment Workers unions.

"It doesn't take much to get into the business. They can rent a loft, 30 sewing machines, make arrangements with a jobber for 10,000 dresses."

Today, a mostly female work force from China, Mexico and South America takes orders from fellow Chinese, Koreans and some Latinos. Some are American citizens; others are here illegally.

"In the New York City area, we're finding shops who keep absolutely no records, pay their employees cash, off the books, with no taxes deducted," said Louis Vanegas, an apparel industry specialist with the U.S. Department of Labor in New York. "It's not unusual for some of the shops to go out of business owing workers pay for many, many weeks."

Pay slower, then not at all

The Hispanic workers at the defunct Lumina Fashions Inc. on Eighth Avenue are owed about $40,000 in back pay, said Mr. Vanegas. They arrived for work in August to find the shop shut down.

Elida DeDiaz, 28, had been working at Lumina seven months, sewing sportswear and being paid by the piece.

Initially, she received her pay -- always cash -- in a timely fashion. But then the owner delayed paying. One week went by. Then another.

"All the people were complaining about not getting paid," Rosa Guaman, a former Lumina worker, said through an interpreter.

"The boss would pick out some and pay them. He paid one person $300 and wouldn't give me $20.

"If we had stopped working, we wouldn't receive anything," said Ms. Guaman, a 28-year-old single mother from Ecuador.

When the shop closed, the employees sought help at the Garment Workers' Justice Center, operated by UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees. Rodolfo Guzman, an organizer, encouraged workers to file complaints.

Mr. Vanegas, the federal labor specialist, persuaded the businesses that contracted with Lumina to pay some back wages. It would be in their interest, he told them.

The Lumina-produced sportswear could be seized as "hot goods" because it was made in violation of federal laws.

Still, Ms. DeDiaz is owed $2,072; Ms. Guaman, $1,500.

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