Labor Officials Turn to Courts to Stem Violations

Attempts to stop or even curtail the ongoing, flagrant violations of federal labor codes by L.A. garment makers are proving largely futile, and labor officials are openly conceding that they have no effective strategies for dealing with the situation.

Despite years of efforts to combat unpaid overtime, low wages and unsafe working environments, such conditions remain widespread in the region's massive and extremely competitive garment industry. Regulators say they are relatively helpless to stop the labor-law violators because they are woefully outnumbered. Meanwhile, activists can help only a handful of workers at a time, as manufacturers, contractors and others assert that retailers are to blame for forcing shops to severely cut corners in order to stay in business.

"While we may have, in any one day, at least one or two investigators out there...there are 5,000 shops producing goods," said Gerald Hall, deputy administrator of the western region of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division.

A recent U.S. Department of Labor survey taken among a sampling of garment shops in the area showed that compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act had dropped to one in three shops.

Hoping to toughen penalties for violators, the department is starting to shift its focus from the shops to the courts.

"It is my goal this year to have our office come up with some contempt citations," Hall said.

The plan is to make greater use of the "hot goods" provision of the Fair Labor Act that makes it illegal to ship goods made by shops that violate federal labor laws. However, the department won less than a handful of judgments against noncompliant contractors last year under that provision. That was a record, according to Hall.

Pursuing the "hot goods" provision won't do much good, said Edna Bonacich, co-author of "Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry."

"Firms learned that the Department of Labor wasn't

really going to follow up," Bonacich said. "They just didn't have the people to do it."

Monitoring process fails

Labor officials openly concede that monitoring, the primary method used in seeking compliance, produced "quite low" results and acknowledge that there's a dire need for "new and more effective enforcement tools."

While the Labor Department's survey results indicate that 70 percent of L.A.-area garment shops were "monitored," the extent of monitoring is not nearly as thorough as that 70 percent figure might suggest. A shop is considered "monitored" if a labor official has checked even one of the seven criteria used to determine compliance.

"I don't believe that monitoring just using one of the (seven) elements is going to do much of anything to be real honest," conceded Hall of the Labor Department. "To me, that's not monitoring."

But there just aren't enough labor officials to accomplish much more. The Labor Department and California Department of Industrial Relations together have only about 80 investigators in the area to oversee the garment business and other industries.

Able to get to only a small number of the garment shops in the L.A. area, investigators rely on the element of surprise. But Hall admits that even the threat of unexpected inspections has done little to get employers in the industry to comply with labor laws.

"We're really pretty tired of having the same people violate that law over and over again," he said.

Even when inspectors do make it to a shop, getting a true picture of its working conditions is difficult.

Employers' documents are often inaccurate, and information must be corroborated by workers, many of whom are illegal immigrants and scared to talk to government officials, Hall said.

Tracking repeat offenders is also a challenge because garment shops can easily shut down and move, officials said.

Penalties for breaking labor laws are relatively minor. If an employer is aware of the laws and willfully breaks them which is tough to prove penalties range from paying workers twice their due to facing fines of up to $1,000 per employee.

Many believe that employers aren't complying with labor laws because of a lack of accountability within the industry.

There is a hierarchy in the garment business that some say makes it difficult to hold anyone responsible for abuses. At the top of the pyramid sit the retailers, which tell manufacturers what they need and how much they want to spend. Manufacturers, in turn, do the same to contractors.

"The link between the worker and the label...is so far removed that it's very hard to have any accountability to the label," said Kimi Lee, director of the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles.

The center, which recently opened to help protect the rights of industry employees, estimates there are about 120,000 people working in L.A.-area garment shops. Most of them are Latino or Asian immigrants and women.

Defending contractors

Joe Rodriguez, executive director of the L.A.-based Apparel Contractors Alliance of California, concedes that some industry employers don't follow the rules, but believes the problem has been exaggerated.

"You can make statistics say anything you want. It depends on what you're trying to spin," he said of the Labor Department's figures. "In any company, I don't care if it's a Fortune 500 company, you can find labor-code violations if you dig deep enough."

While many industry observers point to contractors when laying blame for abuses of workers' rights, they say the problem begins with those higher up in the industry.

Bonacich said that manufacturers, under pressure from retailers, give contractors an ultimatum fill the order at this price or I'll go elsewhere.

Cu Tran, president of Gardena apparel manufacturer RSD Inc., said retailers dictate prices for everyone below on the supply chain.

"It all trickles down from people at the top," he said.

Consolidating some of the many contractors in the area might help rectify the problem, Bonacich said.

Hall isn't sure where the solution lies.

"If I knew it, we'd be doing it right now," he said.

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