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Fashion Victims: Inside the Sweat shop of Los Angeles
Published on Friday, August 3, 2001 in the Independent / UK
Fashion Victims
Inside the Sweat Shops of Los Angeles
by Andrew Gumbel
 
From the outside, the building on the corner of Broadway and 9th Street in downtown Los Angeles looks smart and respectable, a finely preserved Art Deco palace from the 1920s with fanciful mouldings adorning its sleek stone façade.

Inside, however, is a throwback to the desperate industrial world of the 19th century. Every floor is a rabbit warren of corridors and numbered doorways, a labyrinth of iron grilles and black wire mesh reminiscent of a reform school, or a prison. Behind every one of these forbidding doors is a garment shop, where mostly undocumented immigrant workers toil away with scissors, sewing machines and industrial irons for poverty-level wages for up to 12 hours a day.

The 20-odd square blocks on the southern end of downtown are Los Angeles's dirty secret, the largest concentration of garment industry sweatshops in the US, and very possibly the Western world. The profits from this industry account for as much as 10 per cent of the local economy, more even than Hollywood. And yet it is almost entirely hidden from public view. The 160,000 workers who eke out their living here are subject to the whims of employers, who hire and fire them at will. Typically, they are subjected to a regime of rigged time clocks, undeclared overtime, unsanitary workplaces, stifling heat – and, sometimes, beatings and sexual abuse. Many of them do not know what the minimum wage is, much less receive it.

I am here with a team of inspectors from California's Labor Standards Enforcement Bureau, who make regular sweeps of garment shops in a valiant but largely vain effort to encourage better employment practices. Our target is an outfit on the eighth floor called Fashion 2K. In common with every other inspection site, it has been chosen in response to a worker complaint.

On one side of the shop, a dozen workers sit at sewing-machines, putting together party dresses in a variety of pinks, purples, reds, blues and white. They are all Latinos, mostly men. On the other side, the finished articles are stacked on portable racks. One worker, a man with a crucifix round his neck, tattoos, and a Walkman on beneath a baseball cap, is ironing furiously in a corner. Two or three others are packing the pressed dresses in clear plastic.

Everywhere is a tangle of low-slung strip lighting and electric cables dangling down from the ceiling to the machines below.

As soon as the inspectors announce themselves, a swarthy sewing-machine operator and a young, heavily made-up woman sneak out of the door. Inspector Maria de la Rocha hares out after them. The man – let us call him Javier – says the woman is his daughter, recently arrived from the Mexican border, and he is worried about her being punished for working under age. It is hard to know whether that is his true concern. Javier has been working just a few days and has not yet been paid. His daughter, he says, is not an employee at all but hopes to be offered work if she helps him. He claims she is 19 – one year above the legal minimum – but he also calls her a "minor". In the end, the daughter leaves and Javier returns to his sewing machine and agrees to be interviewed.

"Sometimes when we show up, as many as half the employees walk out," De la Rocha explains. "They think we are from Immigration. It takes some explaining to make them realize we are not interested in their legal status, only whether they are being paid and treated properly."

The shop's Korean owner, Kyung Won Park, raises no objection to the inspectors. (Technically, garment-shop owners can refuse entry, but it makes life much easier for everyone to let them in and argue about the details of their findings later.) "I'm not worried, I got nothing to hide," she says in broken English. "Maybe they tell me if I'm doing something wrong." But her demeanor suggests otherwise. Her head is bowed, and her painfully thin, worn face has worry written all over it.

Several of the workers testify that they clock in at 8am and out again at 4.30pm, even though they generally arrive by 7.30 and stay as late as 6pm. Some say they are required to bring their own tools – needles, scissors and so on. One worker, called Raul, says he receives $240 a week, usually in cash. He is one of the luckier ones: his work is measured in hours, while some of his newer co-workers get paid by the piece – typically just a few cents for each sewing operation.

De la Rocha asks Raul if he makes minimum wage. "What is that?" he asks.

"Six dollars and 25 cents an hour," comes the reply. "And time-and-a-half for overtime."

Raul thinks for a moment, then shakes his head. "No, I work 10 or 11 hours a day. I don't think so."

Meanwhile, news of the inspection has spread like wildfire around the building. The health and safety inspector, Maryrose Chan, asks a shop owner across the corridor where the toilets are. The shop owner points her in the wrong direction, then slams her door shut. Soon, the whole floor is in lockdown mode.

Mrs Park is asked to produce her payroll records. After some prodding, she pulls out a sheaf of assorted scrap paper from a drawer. There are figures scrawled hastily in blue Biro. Some of the scraps have names on, some do not. There are no dates. In some cases, one set of figures runs into another written upside-down on the other side of the paper. Many records are simply incomprehensible.

Technically, workers are supposed to receive itemized wage statements including details of deductions for disability insurance and other benefits. In practice, this almost never happens. Mrs Park receives citations amounting to $10,500 for improper time-keeping practices. Other citations will almost certainly follow once the inspectors have been through her pile of scrap paper, estimate how much money is unaccounted for, and decide how much she owes her workers in back wages.

But it is clear that Mrs Park is no great villain. In many ways, she is herself a victim of a system that can offer her work only if she can provide her services at rock-bottom rates. If she doesn't pay sub-minimum wages, fiddle with the time clocks and cut other corners, she cannot make any money herself. The workers she picks up off the street outside her building may have none of the requisite skills, and she has neither time nor motivation to train them. "This business is terrible," she says. "One day workers show up, one day they don't. Some people don't know how to work and clothes are all messed up. They stay maybe one week or two, not long enough. And if business is down, I have to get rid of them. Sometimes I close three days."

Her shop is actually one of the better ones – it is unusually cool and light, and the workers seem to have few personal complaints about her – but it is still riddled with violations. Almost every shop is. In fact, the whole sector is a violation of civilized working standards that the state, with its handful of inspectors and sometimes uncertain legal framework, cannot document or regulate effectively.

"Southern California is witnessing the return of turn-of-the-century apparel manufacturing, characterized by cut-throat competition, contracted labor, and the proliferation of sweatshops," Richard Appelbaum, a University of California sociology professor, wrote in Behind the Label, a book on the Los Angeles garment district that was published last year. Following a long period of consolidation and serial buy-outs, big retailers such as Wal-Mart and Sears have the market clout to squeeze manufacturers for the lowest possible prices. The manufacturers, in turn, contract out their work to thousands of small garment shops like Mrs Park's (there are nearly 5,000 of them in the Los Angeles area). The workers are almost all newly arrived Latino immigrants; the owners tend to be Korean, Vietnamese or Iranian.

While the global trend has been towards contracting garment work overseas, particularly to Asia, Los Angeles is one of the few First World cities that can offer low enough labor costs – which is another way of saying a large enough pool of undocumented immigrants desperate for work – to compete. The number of garment sweatshops in New York may have declined markedly with the advent of the global economy, but LA's clothing industry has boomed, its expansion checked only by a similar growth in Mexico in recent years with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Manufacturers and retailers turn over an estimated $30bn each year from the Californian garment trade. At the same time, according to a federal government survey published last year, 67 per cent of Los Angeles garment shops violate minimum wage and overtime laws and 98 per cent violate health and safety laws. An estimated $80m in unpaid wages is lost by garment workers every year.

Sometimes the work can border on slavery: one notorious case unearthed in 1995 showed that 72 Thai immigrants were being held behind barbed wire in the industrial suburb of El Monte and forced to work for $2 an hour.

After coming under sustained lobbying from protesters, many fashion labels have been forced to show a commitment to decent conditions for workers. While anti-sweatshop demonstrators regularly target Gap stores in the US, Gap Inc maintains that the factories under contract to produce its clothing are required to abide by a "Code of Vendor Conduct". The code sets guidelines for the company when dealing with discrimination, forced labor, environmental concerns, working conditions, child labor, wages and hours, union and collective bargaining rights and employee housing.

In 1999, Guess Inc agreed to pay up to $1m to settle a 1996 lawsuit alleging that thousands of Los Angeles garment workers were underpaid by contractors working for the jeans giant.

"None of this has been proven. It's all hearsay," Glenn Weinman, an attorney for Guess, says. "These people were not our employees. They worked for our contractors and those contractors were not working exclusively for Guess." Guess has since relocated its manufacturing base to Mexico.

The inspection at Fashion 2K is not quite complete when an emergency call comes through for help at another location to the east. Another inspection team has found an unlicensed warehouse where employees are reporting seven-day working weeks, stifling working conditions, and pitiful rates of pay.

J&S Artwork, as the outfit is called, is tucked away in a graffiti-covered brick building surrounded by frozen food warehouses. A filthy front office strewn with packing boxes and disconnected basin units leads to a large storage area at the back, where 15 employees ­ this time young Latino women, for the most part -- attach brass and rhinestone studs to shapeless T-shirts and then pack them into boxes addressed to a wholesaler in North Carolina.

There is no air conditioning, and it is hot enough on the main shopfloor for sweat to break out spontaneously on my neck. One worker says that they have been told that if they open a window or door they will be fired. Most are paid between $150 and $200 a week, for a 10-hour workday, seven days a week. That works out at $2-$3 per hour. In theory, they are paid every Tuesday, but today is Friday and so far this week there has been no money at all. There are no punch cards ­ two clocks in a passageway are both broken ­ and the employees say that they are given no record of their working hours or pay.

There is talk of coercion of many different kinds. "I'm afraid if he [the owner] tells me to come into work on Saturday and I say no, then on Monday there will be no more work," one worker called Alisa said, as she worked the lever-operated stud machine. She was following a pattern mapped out by a co-worker using tiny spots of baby powder. Another employee, a teenage boy, said he walked out after an argument over money but was forced to come begging for his job back three days later because he could find no other work.

The owner, an alarmingly disheveled Iranian called Jahangir Babajoni, tries to make out that he is not a garment maker at all. "I see many places do the same thing and have no license either," he says. "This is not sewing, it's embellishing." This is not a distinction recognized by the law.

Later, two Iranian friends of his arrive and his story changes. Now he says he does not add studs to the shirts at all ­ despite the evidence of it within clear view ­ but merely repairs the odd one or two that may have become damaged. "This is a shipping operation, not manufacturing," he says.

Several hours of haggling ensue. Mr Babajoni has a quarterly tax report, but hardly any pay records, not even scribbles. Eventually he signs a piece of paper admitting some, but not all, of his wage-paying lapses. The inspectors close down the stud-punching part of the shop, sending the workers home, and decide to seize three boxes of clothing as evidence. The remaining employees, clearly delighted at the prospect of collecting hundreds of dollars in back pay, willingly pack the confiscated clothes themselves. More than $11,000 in citations are issued on the spot, and a second appointment is arranged to give Mr Baba- joni more time to present his paperwork.

"This is one of the most flagrant violations you'll see," says the leader of this inspection, Carlos Lopez. Policing even such egregious cases is not easy, however. Shop owners will frequently hire lawyers who help them challenge the citations and get them heavily reduced ­ by 50 per cent on average. Employees will rarely testify at hearings, either because they cannot afford the time or because they are afraid of deportation. If the fines and demands in back pay become too overwhelming, a shop might simply close down and the owner disappear.

State legislation passed in 1999 makes it possible for the inspectors to hold the manufacturer as well as the shop owner liable for back pay, but the new rules are proving ambiguous and difficult to enforce. A big part of the problem is that labor officials can inspect only 900-1,000 shops a year; if a shop knows that it is likely to be raided just once every five years, there is not much incentive to stick to the rules.

According to Professor Appelbaum, invisibility is a key issue for the garment industry. "It's not just about cheap labor It has a lot to do with the ability to operate without embarrassment," he says.

Do the inspectors ever feel they are fighting a battle that is lost before it has even begun? "It depends," answers Dianna Watts, an inspector from Sacramento who is in Los Angeles for a week to provide emergency back-up. "Last week, we ran across a place with an air-conditioned break room that offers dental and eye benefits to its employees, so there's nothing that says you have to operate this way.

"Sure, it can seem hopeless. But I have faith. Somebody's got to do it."

© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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