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

NEW YORK — 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.


Their employment in the shops along Eighth Avenue offers a glimpse into the nonunion, unlicensed segment of the industry and the immigrants drawn to it.

Ms. DeDiaz found the job at Lumina by knocking on doors at an Eighth Avenue building. When she hit the 12th floor, she was hired.

Except for Ms. DeDiaz's first job, in which she received minimum wage, $4.25 an hour, she has been paid by the piece, a lawful arrangement that allows workers to earn above minimum wage.

At Lumina, Ms. DeDiaz was paid 20 cents a blouse, 18 cents a pair of trousers.

Some days, she sewed 350 pieces "if I really work hard and leave my life in the machine," said Ms. DeDiaz, who speaks no English.

She worked six days a week; holidays too. She received no overtime.


Some garment workers don't complain about conditions for fear their boss will alert immigration officials.

"They take advantage of the fact that many of us don't have papers," said Ms. DeDiaz.

Investigators emphasize that the workers are entitled to the pay and protections guaranteed under the law.

"We don't ask anybody what their immigration status is, and we don't seek to find out," said Thomas Glubiak, chief investigator for New York state's apparel industry task force.

"We're here to enforce the minimum wage law."

But Mr. Guzman, a Peruvian employed at UNITE's center, said many garment workers don't know their rights.


"They go to another factory and history repeats itself," he said.

Looking for labor violations

The state Apparel Industry Task Force polices the 4,000 licensed sewing shops in New York City and the hundreds of others that operate in the shadows.

Formed in 1987, the task force employs 20 investigators -- Chinese and Spanish speakers among them -- who make unannounced visits.

In a recent run through Chinatown, investigators found infractions but no illegal shops.

"We have child labor on the fourth floor," said Mr. Glubiak, as he walked through a loft building in lower Manhattan.


"There are other children in the building. But the word is out that we're [here]."

Mr. Glubiak's investigators spotted a 14-year-old girl at the back of Han Fung Fashion Inc., a contractor licensed with the state. The teen-ager was helping her father with his work.

The shop was cited, the girl told to return home.

Reviving U.S. industry

Decentralization of the garment industry has helped invigorate the businesses, but also spawned new sweatshops, officials said.

Technology -- primarily the use of bar codes and computerization -- has enabled retailers to customize their inventory. The retailers rely on quick turnaround and delivery from manufacturers.


While much of the production moved overseas in the 1970s, the technological advances helped revitalize American manufacturing in the late 1980s and 1990s.

To meet the retailers' needs swiftly, manufacturers parceled out the work to sewing shops. The United States has fewer than 1,000 manufacturers, but as many as 22,000 subcontractors.

"The manufacturers and the jobbers are trying to find ways to make more money and save money," said Charles Pi Wang, executive director of the Greater Blouse, Skirt and Undergarment Association, a New York trade group of 400 union shops that pay a $6.50 hourly wage to their employees and provide benefits.

"Nonunion shops are flourishing because they are in demand," Mr. Wang said. "They can negotiate a price so much more attractive than other shops. Other shops are getting less and less work because of this kind of sweatshop."

New York State Labor Commissioner John E. Sweeney describes the illegal sweatshops as a "black market economy" that threatens the economic stability of legitimate businesses.

Taking responsibility


In recent years, state and federal labor investigators have focused more attention on apparel industry leaders, urging them to take responsibility for the contractors they employ. Come Thanksgiving, the start of the biggest shopping season of the year, federal labor officials intend to publicize the clothing manufacturers who are working to clean up the industry.

Mr. Reich, the labor secretary, said his agency has 800 inspectors to cover 6 million workplaces in every industry including migrant farm workers.

"There is simply no way we can police this problem," Mr. Reich said. "Right now, business says over and over again, 'Get government off our back. We don't need government. Let us do it ourselves.' So we've decided to take them literally. Let's let business take more responsibility."

But industry leaders don't see it that way.

"Retailers deal with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of manufacturers," said Steven J. Pfister, vice president of the Washington-based National Retail Federation.

"When we enter into a contractual agreement with a manufacturer, not only do we specify what style and how many, we specify that we expect all goods under that agreement to be manufactured in accordance with all applicable law. Period."