"The Loss of the Garment Industry Is Part of a Cycle": An Interview with Fei Yi Chen, Community Organizer for the Chinese Progressive Association

Article excerpt

I came to the United States from Fu Dou, Guangdong, in December 1998, when I was 35 years old. My aunt first applied for my mother beforehand, and my mother later sponsored me. I have five brothers and sisters. Each one of them was overage to be sponsored. My older brother, two of my older sisters, and my younger brother were married. (2) So, I was the first one to come to the United States among them. But I had to wait seven years before I got my visa! I then moved to Broadway Street in Chinatown.

My mother was working at a sewing company, so that was my first job. My mother introduced me to Win Fashion sewing company) Wins is very famous because Wins is currently under a lawsuit about the compensation to their workers' salaries. (4) The company had a total of three sites, at 1st Street, 5th Street, and 3rd Street. There were about 300 workers when I was there. They didn't receive about four months of salary.

The environment of Win Fashion sewing company was very bad. Our chairs were made out of wood, but I had to sit on boxes on top of mine to adjust to the height of the machine. It was horrible, stuffy, and dusty! There were no masks, so we made the masks ourselves. But we still often found our saliva/spit full of thread and fiber. Many others also became sick from working there. They suffered back pain and shoulder pain.

I thought the job was very unfair since the [employer] paid by how many pieces you made. In other words, you had to make enough clothes--a certain quota---before you got paid the $4.50/hour. (5) If you didn't meet your quota, you had to clock out but finish up your work quota later.

I quit after three months but never got paid. I went to a different sewing company but faced the same conditions. They gave the easy jobs to the workers that worked there for a long time. So the new workers found it hard to make more money. I worked there about one month. I think the second place was even worse than Wins. Then I started searching new jobs in the newspapers. I found a new job at Lee Mah Electronics company.

The electronics companies don't hire just anyone, so other garment workers couldn't switch jobs so easily. You have to be interviewed. They hire people who have no family and young people. That way, you work all the time. People with family often need to take a day off for family issues. That's why so many women work in sewing companies, because the time is more flexible. You can take off anytime, any day for family issues in a sewing company. However, you can't do that in an electronics company.

But the electronics job wasn't as good as I expected. Sometimes, I couldn't take my breaks or go to the bathroom if I didn't meet the quota that day. The company had a quota at a slow rate at the beginning when I started to work. For example, I had to assemble four plates per day. Within two years, I had to increase to 36 plates per day. (6) We were usually threatened by the supervisor that we would get fired if we worked slow. We were sick sometime working under such pressure.

In September 2001, the supervisor had a meeting with us at the kitchen. He announced that we were fired because the business was slow. The company was sending its work to its factory in Tai Shan, China. He also asked us to sign an agreement, all in English. But a guy who knew some English explained to us that the agreement stated that we were quitting our jobs ourselves and not getting fired. That way, we couldn't apply for unemployment. The guy recommended us not to sign it, so we didn't sign it. Then we asked to see the boss, but the boss didn't come out. Instead, he called the policemen to arrest us.

The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) brought us to strike around City Hall and looked for all the organizations that could help and support us. Then we found out that our electronics boss was being honored as a "leader in the Chinese community" by the business community. …