By and  on April 11, 2006

WASHINGTON — Domestic apparel manufacturing and retailing is in the eye of the storm over immigration policy that is being played out on Capitol Hill and across the U.S.

Unionized industry workers were among the hundreds of thousands who marched on Monday in more than 100 cities and towns — from New York to Los Angeles and places like Tyler, Tex., and Garden City, Kansas — urging U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants.

The number of undocumented workers in the industry is difficult to assess because neither watchdog organizations that advocate for them nor many state governments, including California's, have specific employment statistics. However, it is clear that an overhaul in U.S. immigration law being considered by Congress could make sweeping changes in the way apparel manufacturers and retailers deal with employees who are in this country illegally.

The House passed a bill in December that focused on enforcement of immigration laws and, if signed into law, would make it a felony to be in the country without documentation. The Senate reached an impasse on its own immigration legislation on Friday, setting the stage for a potential showdown over a proposed guest-worker program when Congress returns from a two-week recess on April 24.

California, with its comparatively large apparel manufacturing base and its proximity to Mexico, is on the leading edge of the issue.

"For anyone in the apparel industry not to get behind some form of legalization for these workers is to not support the people within your own industry," said Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel in Los Angeles and a green-card carrying immigrant from Canada. "It's to cut your nose off to spite your face."

The National Retail Federation does not have an official position on the immigration issue, but the organization is wary of a provision in the House bill that might force companies to verify the status of their employees, said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations. "They need to be mindful of overly burdensome requirements on employers," he said.

May Y. Chen, international vice president of the UNITE HERE union, which represents apparel, textile, retail, hotel and restaurant workers, said thousands of the union's members came out of the shadows under a 1986 legalization program, and she characterized this as a "dangerous'' period.

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