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Sweatshop workers describe experiences to labor secretary


NEW YORK -- Inside Ying Yi Deng Chan's frayed notebook is the carefully kept record of her exploitation for the past six years in New York City's sweatshops.

On each page, the 56-year-old Chinese immigrant has recorded every 12-hour day she worked as a garment worker, how little she was paid and how often she worked and was never paid at all.

Five years ago, she earned $295 for a 60-hour week making shirts; these days, she gets just $122 for the same amount of work.

Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich listened to Mrs. Chan, and the anguished stories of three other sweatshop workers, at an extraordinary meeting yesterday in the heart of Manhattan's garment district.

The sweatshop workers were invited to talk with Mr. Reich by a local office of Unite, a textile workers union representing 355,000 workers.

Mr. Reich scheduled yesterday's meeting with sweatshop employees, as well as with national clothing retailers, after learning that some of the nation's most prominent stores had received merchandise manufactured in a compound in El Monte, Calif., that was raided by federal authorities last month.

More than 70 workers were found working in virtual slave conditions, behind barbed-wire fences, while reportedly producing millions of dollars in garments for retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Filene's and Montgomery Ward.

Mr. Reich met yesterday morning, behind closed doors at the Fashion Institute of Technology, with 15 national retailers and representatives from two retail trade groups to seek ways to improve monitoring of wage and hour infractions.

As a result, retailers said they would recommend to members that they include specific references to the Fair Labor Standards Act in purchase contracts.

The Labor Department, in turn, agreed to begin identifying sweatshop owners to retailers.

Later in the day, at the Unite office, Mr. Reich listened to four New York sweatshop workers describe unsafe, unsanitary conditions at shops along Eighth Avenue in midtown, in Chinatown and in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

"If anybody doubts that there are sweatshops operating illegally and exploiting workers in this country, you must listen carefully to these stories," he said. "I have heard them again and again in this country."

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