Virginia Deal paces the floor of a tiny room, as industrial sewing machines groan and cotton lint swirls through the air like snowflakes. In a North Carolina minifactory, a half-dozen women carefully sew thread through patterns of gloves. ``I don't have any family life anymore,'' she complains. In New York City, Susan Cowell works in the office at the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). She says she sympathizes, but ``women doing the work Virginia Deal used to do are being unfair to . . . factory workers.''
The right to do industrial work at home has been debated for more than four decades. It's illegal in six industries: women's apparel, gloves and mittens, handkerchiefs, buttons and buckles, embroideries, and jewelry manufacturing. But Labor Secretary William Brock wants to lift the 43-year-old ban. Two years ago he lifted the ban on home workers making knitted outerwear.
``Lifting the ban would signal a return to the industrial dark ages,'' says ILGWU's Mrs. Cowell. ``The sweatshop and home work always go together. Where there's a sweatshop, there's always home work.''
But Michael Avakian, a lawyer for the Center for National Labor Policy, disagrees. ``Sweatshops are where union workers . . . work. Home is where workers [control] their environment.''
Both sides agree that the number of industrial home workers is growing. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 garment workers are breaking the law by sewing at home. Labor Department officials say that certifying employers would protect those workers and guarantee compliance with minimum-wage guidelines. Critics of the proposal point out that many home workers are illegal aliens who are still unlikely to complain.
How good a job authorities do in regulating home work is another source of debate. While Labor Department officials cite a tripling in the number of home-work investigations during the past five years, a General Accounting Office study shows that over the same period the number of enforcement officers has been cut by 16 percent. ILGWU's Cowell charges that enforcement is inadequate. ``Even the best home-work operations are in violation,'' she says.
A House Education and Labor subcommittee recently held two days of hearings on the Labor Department proposal. Most who testified favored the ban, telling of thousands of workers, mostly women, who work 60 to 80 hours a week at wages far below the minimum.
Lawyer Avakian concedes abuses but says home workers like Virginia Deal, who earns an average of $4.40 an hour, are more common.
Mrs. Deal works for the Tom Thumb Glove Company in Wilkesboro, N.C. Until last year she used a company sewing machine at home. She liked that arrangement and says she ``made a lot more money at home, worked fewer hours, and had [more] flexibility'' than she does now. She and other former Tom Thumb home workers now work either in a factory in the next town or at a tiny converted storefront serving as a satellite factory. ``It's not nearly as comfortable as my old setup at home,'' Deal says. ``This is more like what people would call a sweatshop.''
Glenn Clarke owns Maine Brand Manufacturing in Littleton, Maine. His company is violating the ban by continuing to use 35 home workers. Mr. Clarke provides his home workers with full benefits, including paid vacations. Home workers are usually independent contractors who work without benefits. Without home workers, Clarke says, ``I'll do whatever's necessary to make a living, including taking these jobs to Asia. But I'll feel bad for the people here who . . . depended on me to earn a living.''
But most employers are not like Clarke, says ILGWU's Cowell. Instead, they are just looking to exploit home workers to cut costs and dodge paying benefits, she says.
The term exploitation makes Deal angry. She says it's the ban on home work that ``exploits me and women like me. When I can't work at home, I'm losing lots of benefits. Maybe I didn't have a paid vacation, but the benefits of working at home far outweigh factory benefits. You don't need babysitters, don't have transportation problems, and [you can] set your own schedule.''
For home workers like Deal, lifting the ban means better working conditions. For the ILGWU, it represents a return to an era of worker abuse.
The Labor Department will accept comments on the proposed change until Oct. 21. Secretary Brock is expected to reach a decision in a few months.