Magazine article Multinational Monitor

Worker Rights Unravelled

Magazine article Multinational Monitor

Worker Rights Unravelled

Article excerpt

Young shin came to the bay area from Korea in 1975, several years after San Francisco clothing designer Jessica McClintock launched what came to be a multi-million dollar business with $5,000. For 20 years, the women doggedly pursued careers that put them on a collision course.

They collided in the fall of 1992, when Shin - a lawyer who started Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) - took up the cause of 12 sweatshop seamstresses. The women had been stiffed by a bankrupt contractor who worked for clothing manufacturers, including Jessica McClintock, Inc.

With AIWA's help, the women targeted the dress designer for redress, a struggle that escalated into a national boycott of McClintock dresses with the Gunne Sax, Jessica McClintock and Scott McClintock labels. Now in its second year, the stand-off appears to be nowhere near resolution. The seamstresses are after more than paychecks; they want to wean the $38 billion women's apparel industry from its dependence on abusive labor practices.

Labor law violations are common in the 22,000 U.S. contract sweatshops that churn out clothes for almost 1,000 major garment manufacturers. The U.S. Labor Department estimates that more than half of the 2,000 garment shops in the San Francisco Bay Area violate federal wage and hour laws. Throughout the United States, tens of thousands of seamstresses work more than 60 hours a week sewing piece work that pays less than minimum wage.

This arrangement benefits clothing manufacturers, who exploit unlawfully cheap labor while passing potential legal hassles on to contractors, many of whom started out as garment workers. "The people reaping the benefit are not responsible at all," says Vivian Chang, an AIWA organizer.

What helped focus attention on the industry's dirty secrets were routine contracts that McClintock, Inc., and other manufacturers signed with Lucky Sewing Company of Oakland. After Lucky's luck ran out in early 1992, it filed for bankruptcy, leaving a dozen seamstresses with $15,000 in bounced paychecks.

Similar scenes of cheated and abused garment workers have been reported recently in Southern California, Boston, Maryland and New York City:

* The National labor Relations Board cited the Performance Team Freight System, Inc., of Compton, California, for 87 labor law violations in January 1993. The complaint filed by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) resulted from the garment factory's attempt to bust a union-organizing drive. The most serious charge was that an unknown gunman threatened the life of an organizer in front of dozens of witnesses. The union also won an injunction against local police, whom it charged with unlawful arrest of organizers.

* Philip Huang enlisted the help of the ILGWU and the Boston Economic Development and Industrial Corp. in opening a union dressmaking factory in 1992. Within a year, however, he opened a second, nonunionized shop. Workers in the first shop lost their jobs in April 1993 as Huang shifted his business to the nonunion shop. Workers in both shops said they were being paid less than minimum wage.

* James L. Leuthe shut down Garrett Manufacturing in Deer Park, Maryland, after the ILGWU won a $500,000 judgment against him for failing to pay into a benefit fund for his garment company's workers.

* About 20 garment workers in New York's Chinatown picketed contractor Swanky Fashions in January 1993, demanding $40,000 in back pay. Swanky owner Thomas Tam had closed his shop a month earlier. He reopened several blocks away, replacing most of his old workers - to whom he owed money - with new hires.

What distinguishes the Lucky case from so many others is the decision of the victims to leapfrog the contractor to pursue high-profile manufacturers who cash in on sweatshop abuses while disavowing any responsibility for them.

The American Apparel Manufacturers Association in Arlington, Virginia, has a different view of the contractor system. …

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