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Raid Reveals Seamy Side Of US Garment-Making

By Christina NifongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 1995


IT was so shocking few could believe it was true.

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But there they were, 72 Thai immigrants forced to work around the clock, hunched over sewing machines in an apartment complex ringed by razor wire. The Thais were paid 69-cents an hour and allegedly threatened with rape and murder if they stopped working before repaying the cost of being smuggled to America.

This month's raid of a sweatshop in El Monte, Calif., just east of Los Angeles, has triggered an outcry over the prison labor conditions that went on for seven years. Although an extreme case, it has led to allegations of misconduct against a federal agency, spurred a $5 million lawsuit leveled at top retailers, and could lead to a major shake-up in the practices of the nation's billion-dollar garment industry.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich threw the federal government's support behind a bid to collect $5 million in back wages Aug. 14, naming 14 manufacturers and 18 retailers, including Sears, Neiman Marcus, and Filenes. The firms bought garments from what he called the ''slave labor'' compound.

Experts say the raid is raising questions and may prompt an investigation of how the INS polices illegal immigrant labor.

''This is long overdue,'' says Julie Su, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Center here, which represents the Thai workers in a suit for back wages. ''That's why it's so infuriating that it took a case like this to get people involved,'' she says. ''The garment industry is one of the most abusive industries in the country.''

Those pushing for reform admit that the conditions the Thai workers endured were unusually harsh. They were allowed outside of the guarded compound only once each year, New Year's Day, and forced to work until they dropped from exhaustion But labor studies show the garment industry is rife with lawlessness.

By some estimates, 15,000 laborers, out of 120,000 in Los Angeles's garment industry, work in illegal sweatshops. And a study conducted last year by California's Labor Department found that 50 percent of the 69 garment manufacturers investigated did not pay minimum wage. More than 60 percent paid no overtime. And more that 90 percent were guilty of breaking health and safety codes.

The garment industry in Los Angeles is the largest in the nation, having grown 40 percent since 1990, outpacing New York City. With a steady stream of immigrants, weaker unions than some cities, and contacts in the Pacific Rim, Los Angeles is well-suited for this notoriously difficult to regulate industry. And, the current practice of restocking stores at short notice, says Steve Nutter, regional director of the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees, makes it more important than ever to keep sewing factories close by.

So, to Mr. Nutter, the outcome of the early morning raid on Aug. 2, when state and local law enforcers descended on the seven-unit compound, was no surprise. ''What happened here should not be seen as an anomaly,'' he says. ''It should be seen as the natural outcome of industry trends.'' Six Thais have been charged with harboring illegal immigrants and two more are accused of transporting the Thai workers. The sweatshop is assumed to be part of an international network of illegal labor. A preliminary court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 17.