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Behind US Fashion Labels--LA's Multi-Billion Dollar Sweatshop Industry

Behind US Fashion Labels--LA's Multi-Billion
Dollar Sweatshop Industry

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."

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