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.

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