Albion Monitor /News

New York Sweatshops Increasing, Govt. Study Shows

by Farhan Haq

and related article in this topic
(IPS) NEW YORK -- U.S. Labor Department findings that a majority of New York garment firms break the country's labor laws underscore how serious the resurgence of sweatshops has become in this country, labor activists say.

"It's obvious that the sweatshop problem has been increasing and expanding in this country since the 1980s, and it's out of control," says Barbara Briggs, senior associate at the New York-based National Labor Committee, which monitors workers' rights in the United States and in U.S. factories overseas.

The worst results were in New York's Chinatown section, where almost nine out of every ten shops searched were found to be in violation
A new Labor Department study, released October 16, found that of 94 New York garment companies that were investigated, 59 of them (63 percent) violated the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act by paying workers less than the legal minimum wage, withholding overtime pay, or both.

Investigators found that more than 1,400 garment workers in those companies had been cheated of at least $412,300 in back wages so far this year. Only 37 percent of the companies surveyed paid employees the $5.15 an hour minimum wage or regular overtime.

A 1996 survey of Los Angeles shops had found a comparable 39 percent to be in compliance with wage and overtime standards. While the average back wages withheld per shop amounted to some $3,200 in Los Angeles, the New York employers have bilked their workers of an average of $7,000 per shop.

Seventy percent of the New York shops -- most of which are contracted by the large apparel manufacturers -- also violated requirements to keep accurate records of workers' pay and overtime.

"Obviously these results are unacceptable," Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said today. "The results clearly suggest that manufacturers should be monitoring contractor shops more."

The worst results were in New York's Chinatown section, where almost nine out of every ten shops searched were found to be violating wage and overtime laws. The Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA), a New York-based watchdog group, contends that shop owners regularly withhold wages and overtime for the workers there because they know that the Chinese-speaking immigrant workforce is largely unable or unwilling to complain to officials.

Chinatown shop owners pay their garment assembly workers only some three dollars an hour, more than two dollars an hour below the legal minimum, says CSWA Executive Director Wing Lam. "Chinatown is 90 percent unionized, but 80 percent of those workers (in both union and non-union shops) make below minimum wage," Lam says.

The main worry among immigrant groups is that if they complain to the U.S. government their complaints could prompt a raid or federal monitoring. They also fear that labor officials could put the stores out of business entirely under "employer sanction" laws that forbid the hiring of illegal immigrants. This could also expose workers to deportation by immigration officials.

These combined threats have served to maintain a docile workforce of undocumented immigrants, says Lam.

Until recently, Labor Dept. did not have a single Chinese-speaking investigator in New York, and few Spanish-speakers, despite reports of abuses among Central American and Chinese laborers
Nor are immigrants the only ones being cheated of wages, says Briggs. In rural parts of the United States, she notes, women workers have increasingly been assembling garments and other small-scale items from their homes as part of a rising home-based industry in which pay and conditions are difficult to monitor.

The classic sweatshop model, in which hundreds of workers are crammed into small rooms to assemble garments or small-scale manufacturing for low wages and no benefits, was thought to have disappeared in the United States in the first half of the century. At that time, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act clamped down on a wide range of wage problems and environmental and occupational hazards in U.S. workplaces.

In recent years, however, dozens of cases have drawn attention to the persistence of sweatshops. A 1995 federal raid on an isolated plant in El Monte, California, found dozens of young Thai women working in locked quarters under conditions that investigators compared to slavery.

And last year, U.S. television talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford was embarrassed when rights groups and reporters found Central American workers assembling clothes for her "Kathie Lee" clothing line marketed by Wal-Mart for extremely low wages -- not only in Honduras, but at a plant in New York City just blocks from her television studio.

At the root of the U.S. sweatshops, Briggs says, is a "race to the bottom" where U.S. multinational corporations have set up shop throughout the Third World in an effort to find the cheapest labor costs.

"The Wal-Marts are going to U.S. companies and basically asking for the same conditions that they can get in Honduras, Indonesia, and elsewhere," she says. "But at this point, the local legal minimum wages (in many developing countries) are set too low. They're setting minimum wages at or below subsistence levels."

A panel of major apparel firms convened in April by President Bill Clinton agreed on the need for companies to push for higher wages and an end to practices such as child labor in their overseas facilities. But the panel, called the Sweatshop Task Force, resisted suggestions that multinationals compel their contractors in the developing countries to pay a "living wage" even if the countries' legal minimum wages are lower than subsistence level.

Activists credit the Labor Department for trying in recent years to raise the labor standards of U.S. companies at home and abroad, but few believe the government is up to the task of monitoring firms that violate those standards. "They're grossly under-funded," Briggs says of the Labor Department.

The Labor Department says that the New York survey demonstrates the need to target manufacturers with a history of contracting with shops that violate labor laws. Among the steps being contemplated are plans to halt "hot goods," or products made under substandard labor conditions, from being sold by manufacturers.

The department's Wage and Hour Division has also stepped up its work in New York City by hiring 16 new investigators, all of whom are fluent in either Chinese or Spanish. That is a welcome change, some activists say, from a time when the department did not have a single Chinese-speaking investigator in New York, and few Spanish-speakers, despite reports of abuses among Central American and Chinese laborers.

Lam is less impressed with the government's work, arguing that at times "the government pretends to do something, without addressing the question" of big businesses that seek the cheapest wages possible.

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Albion Monitor October 27, 1997 (

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