A problem that has beset urban centers since the first wave of unskilled and impoverished immigrants arrived on America's shores has reemerged. In the New York metropolitan area alone, as many as 50,000 women toil in garment-making sweatshops, in conditions that blatantly violate labor laws and health and safety standards. Sweatshops sprout up each time an exploitable work force becomes available -- usually third-world immigrants fleeing economic and political hardships in their own countries.
The public is aware of sweatshop abuses through much recent media attention. It is now time for the US Labor Department and Congress to do something about this illegal and unethical industry.
Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan has in fact promised to urge Congress to change the Fair Labor Standards Act. He is considering several amendments, the most important of which call for civil penalties of up to $10,000 for repeated failure fo sweatshop owners to keep records.
The proposal recognizes the fact that few sweatshop owners keep track of employees' hours. But it does not deal with the root problem. It is not the owners who primarily need to be regulated or penalized. Often of the same ethnic group and social class as the sewing machine operators, the sweatshop owners are also exploited as they compete fiercely for work contracts from the manufacturers. These contracts frequently are so low that the shop owners can pay their workers only about $2 per hour, substantially less than the $3.35 minimum wage.
New York state now has under consideration a proposal that gets to the heart of the matter. A bill submitted to the state legislature would, like a California bill which became law July 1, require the registration of both small garment shops and the large manufacturer/designers. The state labor department would be empowered to confiscate goods if wage and hour laws and health and safety standards were not obeyed.
The law would be self-enforcing, an important consideration in a time of labor department cutbacks. At the risk of losing their goods, the manufacturers would choose to shoulder the responsibility of supervising the sewing shops where they send their garments. Inspections would still need to be carried out, but the stiff penalties would put effective pressure on the manufacturers to see that their clothes were made in law-abiding shops.
Many fallacious beliefs underlie the past complacency in dealing with sweatshops. One is that if clothes are not sewn in sweatshops in the US they would simply be sent to sweatshops in Latin America or Asia. This can no longer be taken for granted. The cost of shipping fabrics overseas is becoming prohibitive, especially to produce the lower-quality goods characteristically sewn in sweatshops.
The argument that clothes prices would skyrocket if cheap labor were not available is also open to challenge. Union-made clothes can compete in cost with sweatshop garments in most cases. The large department stores do not have to depend on sweatshop products to make a profit.
It is also often argued that because many sweatshop workers reside in the US illegally the government need not feel obligated to protect them. But selective protection, even if this were possible, is not and never has been the intent of labor laws. Only through consistent application of the laws can all workers be protected.
In short, garment sweatshops are an affront to decent labor practic e and ought to be vigorously reformed.