By  on June 28, 1994

NEW YORK -- Call them the Sweatshop Police.

With limited manpower and authority, members of the New York State Apparel Industry Task Force sweep through the garment district in an effort to enforce labor laws.

Their primary function is to inspect shops for proper working conditions, collect unpaid wages and penalties and talk to workers about their employment rights.

It's a tough job, task force members said. In light of recent hearings here on the difficulties of controlling sweatshops and proposals to strengthen state anti-sweatshop legislation, WWD accompanied the task force on sweeps of 10 shops in the apparel district and saw the problems firsthand. A unit of the State Labor Department, the task force was founded in 1987. It is the lone authority conducting inspections of apparel shops here to determine whether they comply with state labor laws.

In the first five months of this year, state investigators conducted 570 investigations, resulting in $537,000 in assessed penalties. At that rate, this year's results will surpass those of 1993, when investigators assessed more than $1 million in unpaid wages and penalties.

When such inspections are made, numerous problems arise. People in authority are often not present, making sure to leave, in some cases, if they know inspectors are coming. In many cases, workers do not speak English, and those who do seem reluctant -- or frightened -- to say anything. Investigators said some workers won't take the time to stop working and talk, since they are paid on a piece-rate basis; others are afraid they will be deported if they speak out against their employers.

"They see the Department of Labor as an immigration agent that will send them back," said investigator Gloria Castille.

However, investigator Andy Chan pointed out that the Labor Department is not concerned with immigration.

"I'm here to help these people who are being exploited because they don't know their rights," Chan said. "Where they come from is not our primary concern."

Many of the workers are undocumented aliens who are working in unregistered apparel shops and denied legal wages and insurance. Often, they do not know the laws concerning their employment.

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