Crackdown on sweatshops

Illegal aliens laboring for unscrupulous garment industry contractors in Los Angeles may be working the longest hours for the least pay of all workers in the United States.

After investigating 2,000 Los Angeles firms over nearly two years, the California Department of Industrial Relations says more than 79 percent of those businesses were found to be violating minimum-wage and overtime- pay laws.

To halt such widespread exploitation of tens of thousands of workers, the US Department of Labor has established a "strike force" that is expected to affect the situation in two ways: by putting lawbreakers on notice that the federal government is watching and by prosecuting specific cases.

Coupled with a reform bill working its way through the California Legislature , the efforts by the US Labor Department and the state Industrial Relations Department may finally put the squeeze on Los Angeles "sweatshops."

Under current law, only contractors can be fined by the state and, in some cases, brought to court. Manufacturers, who establish the price structure -- and indirectly wages -- in the garment business here, are immune from prosecution.

Under a bill introduced by state Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D) of El Monte, the state would be permitted, on the third violation of labor statutes by a contractor, to hold the manufacturer liable for violations.

Another provision of the bill would enable the state to revoke a contractor's registration if violations persisted, effectively putting him out of business.

"The bill will force manufacturers to work with reliable contractors," says Joe Razo, Los Angeles director of the division of labor standards enforcement for the California Department of Industrial Relations. "We want to stabilize the relationship between the manufacturer and contractor. The unfair employer is going to have to go out of business."

The measure recently was passed by the California Senate, 22 to 2, and is expected to win approval in the state Assembly sometime this month.

There are some 100,000 workers in the Los Angeles garment industry, nearly three- fourths of whom are thought to be undocumented immigrants. Employers may legally hire illegal aliens under federal and state laws today, but are still subject to laws governing wages and work conditions, such as the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Labor Department will seek out violators of that statute in its Los Angeles investigation.

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