Federal survey results released a few weeks ago, finding that rampant labor law violations persist in L.A.'s garment district, have touched off a flurry of finger-pointing over who's to blame and what should be done. The U.S. Department of Labor report determined that only one in three subcontractors inspected this year in Los Angeles was in compliance with federal labor laws, a slightly poorer showing than the 39 percent of two years ago. Some industry observers expressed frustration and dismay at the findings because they come six years after a voluntary monitoring program was instituted in L.A. to prevent the wage and overtime violations.
"It really points out the failure of private monitoring to do anything meaningful in the way of preventing sweatshops in L.A.," said Muneer Ahmad, an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which provides legal assistance to garment workers. "The fear of workers is that, if they report a violation, they get fired." Or worse. "It's hard to believe, but in this day and age you have to be sure workers aren't being threatened with violence or even beaten up," said Randy Youngblood, president of Apparel Resources Inc., one of the first monitoring companies in Southern California. But weren't independent monitors supposed to rectify such conditions? Well, that depends on who you ask.
Ilsa Metchek, director of the California Fashion Association, suggested that DOL's initiative on compliance was borne of political pressure following a raid on an El Monte sweatshop in 1994 that revealed Thai immigrants working under slave-like conditions. "It was an isolated and egregious incident they never came upon again," she said. Metchek characterized the fact that garment manufacturers each shell out anywhere from $2,500 to $100,000 annually in voluntary monitoring services as "remarkable" proof of their commitment to the system. Not only that, she believes monitoring works for manufacturers that take it seriously. But what about the new DOL survey results? Metchek said the agency's statistical sampling definitely needs improvement. Jerry Hall, a deputy administrator with the DOL, conceded that his agency has been "overly optimistic" about the prospects of assuring wage and overtime compliance through monitoring. However, he suggested that clothing companies bear the ultimate responsibility for not acting upon the recommendations of monitors. "It has not been successful because the manufacturers' commitment does not appear on the level it needs to be," Hall said. Not true, countered Metchek. "The question is, who's doing a lousy job?" she said. "The department says they don't have enough manpower, they don't have enough funding, they don't have enough of this and enough of that. I suggest they find a better way."
Meanwhile, even monitoring pioneer Youngblood concedes that the system is flawed, due in part to L.A. garment-making workplaces being too fluid to ensure full compliance. "People come and go from the shop floor. Somebody fails to clock in and you can't assure they're going to be paid anyway," Youngblood said. "And then there are contractors who are simply doing their best not to comply." Under the monitoring system, manufacturers sign an agreement with the DOL to comply with federal wage and hour standards, as well as to ensure that those contractors that assemble their garments, cut fabrics, dye materials and undertake other functions are also following the law. Monitoring firms are then hired and paid by garment manufacturers to keep tabs on the subcontractors. As part of getting contracts from manufacturers, those subcontractors agree to provide monitors access to their facilities, factories, personnel records and other financial records. They also agree to permit confidential employee interviews.
But in the real world, gaining access to production and payroll records can be difficult work, according to Youngblood. "You're dealing with shop surveillance and corroborating what you hear with what you see," he said. Assuming they are successful in gaining access to the subcontractor's operations and records, the monitor then reports back to the manufacturer regarding conditions at the subcontractors' facilities, and it's then up to the manufacturer and subcontractor to resolve any problems. There's no obligation to report the findings to the government. Instead, the government mounts its own enforcement effort by investigating complaints from workers and doing limited inspection of facilities. "We never intended for there to be monitors," explained Hall of the DOL. "But the garment industry, being what it is, contracted out (for oversight). A cottage industry sprang up to provide the services they felt they weren't capable of doing." Metchek of the fashion association indeed asserted that there are limits to what a garment company can do. "You don't own that contractor," she argued. "It's the same issue that Ford has with Firestone. Once a monitor leaves that shop, you have no control over what goes on after that." Ahmad of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center disputed that claim. He believes the garment industry traditionally subcontracts work to circumvent labor laws. The term "manufacturer" is a misnomer, he said, since most garment houses these days do garment design and leave the actual assembly to the subcontractors. "On top of that, manufacturers send folks into these factories every day and tell workers how to do (the work). In most circumstances they are still in control of what's going on," Ahmad said.So why doesn't the government resort to old-style regulation? The DOL and the state Labor Commissioner's Office do conduct inspections, but Ahmad complained that staffing and time constraints limit the number of shops that can be inspected. The attorney recently assisted a family of garment workers (mother, father and daughter) in garnering a $134,000 court award after they were fired for complaining about working conditions to a monitor. Solutions to the problem are elusive, to say the least. Despite its own report, the DOL still thinks there's a place for voluntary compliance but that the tactic can't do the job alone. Metchek, meanwhile, argued that the garment industry is already under more intense scrutiny than any other sector in L.A. "It's oversight without education," she complained. Youngblood is calling for a traffic-school-like arrangement to educate those guilty of violations about their responsibilities instead of issuing fines that could drive many companies out of business or overseas. "We need to deal with the problem in a way that permits us to go forward and stay in business. We need to develop working relationships between contractor, manufacturer and monitor." Ahmad is calling for more legislation to punish manufacturers who benefit from the illegal practices of their subcontractors. "There's no pressure on manufacturers because government agencies have let them off the hook," said Ahmad. "Monitoring has been a failed strategy."
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