Task Force Tackles Labor-Law Violations

A SPECIAL task force in California is cracking down on garment industry labor-law violators, setting a model for similar programs around the United States.

Under the Targeted Industries Partnership Program, state and federal officials have investigated garment shops and agribusinesses. In 1992, before the program began, the state assessed $612,000 in fines against garment shops; in 1993, after its first year, the figure jumped more than 600 percent to $3.9 million. ``TIPP has become a model program to export to other states,'' says Jose Millan, a state deputy labor commissioner.

Investigators say the industry is one of the nation's most lawless. They often find employers hiring children and not paying overtime or minimum wage. Mr. Millan estimates that up to 80 percent of California's garment contractors violate the law. Investigators say they also find dangerous violations such as chained emergency exits and clothing left near frayed electrical cords.

Labor-law enforcement is difficult because brand-name manufacturers often subcontract sewing to smaller firms. They say they're not responsible for conditions at contract shops.

Some sewing shops stay afloat by cheating workers or keeping two sets of timecards and books to deceive authorities. Manufacturers say they can't police such activity. ``We send someone out to the shops primarily to see the work is being done, and it's being done in accordance with our quality standards,'' says Paul Gill, president of San Francisco Fashion Industries, a trade association. ``The person going out is not a qualified payroll auditor.''

But Millan says some manufacturers ignore violations. They can check that a shop is registered and has workers' compensation and working time clocks, for example. Recently, contractors working for brand-name companies have been caught violating laws. In surprise raids, clothing destined for Guess for Kids and Beyer California, among other manufacturers, has been found.

TIPP is starting to more strictly enforce laws. If a manufacturer sends out dresses to an unregistered contractor, state authorities can seize the dresses until the contractor registers and pays a fine. Federal authorities have threatened to use the Fair Labor Standards Act to embargo manufacturers' clothing sewn at shops violating laws. So far, the threat has convinced some manufacturers to pay their contractors' fines. This emphasis on enforcement has many people scared, Mr. Gill explains.

Garment union officials are not so sure. ``I think [TIPP investigators] are sincere in wanting to crack down,'' says Katie Quan, head of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union in San Francisco. ``But they're extremely understaffed.''

TIPP's 27 investigators cover 150,000 state garment workers. And while the amount of assessed fines has skyrocketed, the program last year collected only $377,000. Investigators say they plan to have state tax officials start collecting fines, hoping to increase that amount.

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