Sweatshop Police

By Ross, Robert J. S. | The Nation, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Sweatshop Police


Ross, Robert J. S., The Nation


Among the thousands of small contractor shops where workers sew clothing, in New York and Los Angeles, in New Jersey and around the United States, six out of ten persistently break the labor laws, failing to pay minimum wages or overtime. These sweatshops are right here in the United States, but the government is about to declare virtual disarmament against the lawbreakers.

President Bush's budget calls for a tiny increase in spending on enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act--from $166 million to $169 million, or 1.8 percent. Since the authoritative economic forecasts predict price increases between 2.6 and 2.8 per-cent, the President's budget actually implies a relative loss of enforcement ability. This is not a good time to cut back on law enforcement for minimum wage, overtime and child labor protections. We have been down that road before and it has been disastrous.

When Eisenhower was President in 1957, the Wages and Hours Division of the Department of Labor had one investigator for every 46,000 workers; by 1972 (after a brief deterioration) the figure was similar. This level was apparently adequate, and it was among the factors that led, in the long generation from 1938 (when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed) to the late 1970s, to the overall decline in abuses and the eradication of the worst sweatshops in manufacturing industries like garment-making.

After the mid-1970s, successive federal budgets chipped away at this level of law enforcement. During the Reagan era, the ratio of Wages and Hours investigators to employees sank to one per 110,000. When President Bush left office, the ratio was one to 130,000. During Clinton's first term, the trend continued; by 1996, the ratio of enforcers to workers was at a low of less than one per 150,000. If the number of investigators had kept pace with the growth of employment, there would have been more than 2,500 officials charged with stopping sweatshop abuses and other violations of the labor laws. Instead, by 1996 there were only 781 investigators (Ike had more than 1,100). This is like firing two out of every three cops and then wondering why there are more robberies.

It was in the mid-1990s, when law enforcement capacity was at its lowest, that the most outrageous abuses were discovered. Seventy-two workers were found held in a virtual slave factory in El Monte, California, in 1995, for example. …

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