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Sewn Into A Corner Cheap-Labor Controversy Rips Garment Industry

Thu., Sept. 28, 1995

It’s the hangers that give them away. Rows of wire hangers, strung across windows on floor after floor of the aging buildings in this city’s bustling garment district.

“Look up there, and there,” a state inspector exclaims, pointing skyward with a jabbing index finger. Sweatshops seem to be everywhere in this rundown part of town.

Labor enforcement officials call it a growing, seemingly intractable problem: a booming fashion industry that thrives on the region’s cheap and plentiful immigrant labor.

“I cannot say it’s a good job,” says Miguel Perez, a transplant from Puebla, Mexico, his thin body hunched over a sewing machine at a shop on 8th Street. “But what else is there to do?”

Until recently Perez and thousands others like her suffered without notice. But a state and federal raid last month exposed the slave-like conditions in many garment shops.

Some estimate that about half of Southern California’s 10,000 garment shops operate illegally.

Working for as little as $1.50 an hour, illegal immigrants show up before dawn and often toil late into the night, squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder in sweltering conditions.

Publicity about those conditions has put pressure on the clothing designers and manufacturers who want more for less, indirectly pushing garment makers to demand more of their sweatshop workers.

Last month state and federal investigators raided an El Monte sweatshop and found 72 Thai immigrants laboring under slave-like conditions. The clothes made in the cramped factory found their way to the racks of the nation’s top stores, from Mervyn’s to Bullock’s to Neiman Marcus.

But manufacturers and retailers alike expressed shock when they learned that some of their merchandise was made in abusive and illegal work environments. Clothing manufacturer Ed Simon says some only feign ignorance.

He said legal contractors, like his Simon Ltd., often doom themselves to failure because it’s difficult to compete with the low-cost illegal sweatshops. “We’re not playing on a level field.”

However, analysts say the industry’s cutthroat nature encourages shady production tactics. Moreover, the recent recession is continuing to reshape the industry by driving many retailers into bankruptcy and out of business.

That leaves a few major retailers and a handful of gigantic discount chains, consolidating the industry in the hands of a select few who make decisions that were once the province of suppliers.

“It allows the retailers to basically dictate the terms of the relationship, in terms of quality, in terms of design - and in terms of price,” said Carl Steidtmann, the head of research for Management Horizons, a Columbus, Ohio, retail consulting firm.

In addition, developing Third World countries have a plethora of apparel makers eager to compete with domestic designers for lucrative store contracts - forcing the local designers to find ways to reduce their costs.

Some contractors and manufacturers are scrambling to salvage tattered reputations.

About 10 garment contractors have formed a group, the Compliance Alliance, which seeks to improve the industry’s image and ensure that its members comply with the law, said attorney Richard Reinis, who represents the group.

And the U.S. Justice Department has begun its own brand of enforcement. Those manufacturers with repeated violations must now sign a form agreeing to self-police their contractors to make sure they meet all legal requirements. So far, about 14 companies have signed agreements, including such well-known labels as Rampage and Chorus Line.

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