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"Sweatshops in New York City,"

by Kenneth Kimerling March/April 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

Sweatshops are alive and busy in New York City. You Lan Zhao worked almost four months without being paid, and then the factory closed. Kevin Lam worked seven days a week at least 15 hours a day and received no overtime pay. When he complained, he was fired. The U.S. Department of Labor found that nine out of ten garment factories in Chinatown violate minimum wage and overtime laws. In the city as a whole, two out of three garment factories violate these laws. In fact, most garment workers in New York work six and seven days a week, 12 hours a day. They are never paid overtime. This happens in both union and non-union factories.

Despite widespread violation of the law, very few workers complain. Most employees are immigrants with almost no English language ability. They work for piece-rate wages and do not know they are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay. Even those who know the law are afraid to complain. Some are concerned with their citizenship status. Others are just worried they will be fired and never get another job.

In the Chinese-American community, other workers will sometimes attack the complainants, verbally and physically. A sizeable portion of the community believes that enforcement of the minimum wage laws will force the factories to close and the jobs to leave the country. Workers who have limited English language skills are locked into these jobs or restaurant jobs that are equally as bad.
Often those workers who do complain do not recover what they are owed. Usually the complaints are filed after the companies have closed and/or have moved and changed their corporate identities. Even when the factories remain in business, the workers only recover a small fraction of what they are owed. The corporations that own the businesses have very few assets, and the bosses hide whatever money they have.

Hope on the Way

However, there is now a chance to turn things around. Attorneys and workers’ organizations have been developing a legal attack against the manufacturers. Garment manufacturers long ago stopped owning factories. They contract out all their work and up to now have fairly successfully insulated themselves from these wage and hour violations. The factories have been held responsible for the violations, but have no money to pay; while the manufacturers, who have the money to pay, having profited from the low wages and overtime work, were held not responsible. A recent federal court decision, in a case brought by the National Employment Law Project, has now found that a manufacturer is a “joint employer” of the workers, along with the factory. The court looked at the ways the manufacturer controlled the workplace. Although the manufacturer did not hire or fire, it effectively controlled the workers’ hours, their pay and other conditions of employment. Settled on appeal, the litigation gave overtime wages to the workers, plus legal fees.

A recent Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) case offers a perfect example of how the sweatshop system works and how it can be attacked by suing the manufacturer. Chinese American workers at two jointly run factories in Brooklyn were working more than 100 hours a week without any days off and without any overtime pay. One week they worked straight through several nights, for a total of 137 hours. When several workers complained and asked for some needed time off, they were fired. These workers then complained to a workers’ organization, the Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association (CSWA). CSWA brought in AALDEF, the U.S. Department of Labor and the New York State Attorney General. Only fifteen among the 150-200 workers would risk filing a lawsuit. After a raid by the Department of Labor, one factory closed, only to reopen a block away with some of same supervisors and the same employees, except for those who had complained. The second factory, which was not raided, just changed its name and continued in business. AALDEF sued the factories, their owners, and the manufacturer and its owners. Almost all the work in the factories was being done for one manufacturer, Street Beat. The workers were owed $140,000, primarily in overtime wages. Federal wage and hour laws allow the workers to sue for double that amount as a penalty.

If the workers had only complained to the Labor Department or only sued the factories, they would have obtained very little of the $280,000 in back wages plus damages that they are owed. Both factories had ostensibly “closed.” But by suing the manufacturer, the chances of collecting increased. Street Beat remained in business despite the fact that these factories and others making its garments have been found by the U.S. Department of Labor to have violated the law. Moreover, Street Beat has brand names that are identifiable and can be the subject of public pressure and boycotts.

The threat to the sweatshop system was apparent. When the CSWA and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), along with the workers, picketed Sears for selling Street Beat clothing, the manufacturer and the factory owners association paid other workers to be counter-pickets. Street Beat also sued the workers, CSWA, NMASS and AALDEF for interfering with their sale of garments to Sears and another retailer, Fashion Bug. In addition, the boss of the factories had many of the other workers sign affidavits saying that they only worked 35 hour weeks. AALDEF’s case currently is in Federal Court, awaiting disposition.

The lawsuit against Street Beat and other cases filed by AALDEF against other manufacturers are part of the new assault on sweatshops. An interesting related case was recently brought on behalf of Chinese garment workers stitching clothes for The Gap and other major labels in Saipan, in the Northern Marianas (a US Commonwealth); here the issue primarily deals with the flow of migrant labor across international borders. Such lawsuits, together with an organizing strategy of workers’ organizations and anti-sweatshop protest groups, promise to provide results. When the plaintiffs prevail on their claims against the manufacturers and collect their judgments, it will empower other workers to seek a remedy against other factories and other manufacturers. No longer will workers’ claims go unpaid. With the ability to recover judgments, more private lawyers will join the fight against sweatshops, as the wage and hours laws provide that employers must pay legal fees to the workers’ attorneys. Sweatshops will not disappear with one or two victories, but manufacturers will soon realize that the payment of minimum wage and overtime is a necessary and enforceable cost of doing business.

Kenneth Kimerling a former PRRAC board member, is Litigation Director for the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund.

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