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.The task force doesn't have the authority to close down illegal factories -- commonly known as sweatshops -- but can notify other government authorities such as fire departments and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about illegal conditions it finds during inspections, according to Thomas Glubiak, chief labor standards investigator.
Among the most common violations are failure to register with the state, keeping inadequate pay records and failure to pay wages, he said.
Glubiak said the task force, with 20 investigators, is understaffed. There are enough investigators to inspect 1,300 of the state's 6,000 apparel shops each year; 40 percent of those visits are triggered by complaints and 60 percent are random inspections. Collecting wages and penalties for violations can take years, Glubiak said, because of the transient nature of the business. Some 1,500 sweatshops open, close and sometimes reopen under a new name every year. Sweatshop conditions are not limited to the metropolitan area, he added. Earlier this month, in the Utica area upstate, a sweep of nine shops found each one to be unregistered.
For two days this month, WWD accompanied investigators while they made their rounds.
On one street in the garment district, smiling shop owners frequently greeted investigator Andy Chan, a four-year veteran of the task force, with a handshake or a pat on the back. But Chan said inspections are not as well received. When investigators enter a building, security guards and elevator operators often buzz apparel shop owners to warn them, he said.
At Maria Pleating, an unregistered shop at 265 West 37th St., four employees were observed working among trash and piles of clothes. Unlike in many apparel factories, none of the sewers and pleaters interviewed knew for what companies the garments were being made, and there weren't any labels visible in the shop.
Earlier, at the end of March, the firm had been notified that it must register within 20 days or face a $1,500 fine. Now that fine could double, Chan said, since investigators found inconsistencies in the shop's pay records during this inspection.
Finding employees working unsupervised is a common practice, according to senior investigator Ellen Davidow. At Royal Fashion Plus, a sportswear manufacturer at 256 West 38th St., visitors were in the shop and the office for 15 minutes without being approached by anyone in authority. The visitors used an office telephone, took flash photographs and inspected garments."We enter the lobby of what looks like a normal building, take the elevator up to an apparel shop, open the cage door and it's like you're in some other world," Davidow said. "No one greets you. Sometimes no one asks why you're there."
When a young Asian woman entered the Royal Fashion Plus office shortly after 9 a.m., Yong Kim, the task force's first Korean-speaking investigator, asked her age. Laughing, the woman said she spoke only Chinese. After much discussion, it was learned she was 15. She claimed to be a visitor, even though she was carrying her lunch. Investigators said they could only speculate that the girl was an under-age employee, since she was not seen working, Davidow said.
Some shop owners pointed out that dealing with their employees was not easy. In his air-conditioned office at Growrich Apparel Co., 318 West 39th St., owner Kwan Kim said when he was looking for a shop he told the real estate agent an unobstructed view of the shop floor was essential: "I wanted to be able to see all the workers on the floor. They could steal something, break a machine or go home and I wouldn't know."
Production was slow at most of the shops, and several owners said they were struggling to stay open. Sangwooki Lim opened Blooming Fashion, 318 West 39th St., in April, but he said it might close soon because he can no longer afford the $5,000 rent for his 7,000-square-foot shop.
As reported, legislation proposed by New York State Sen. Franz S. Leichter of Manhattan calls for stricter penalties for sweatshop conditions. It will be taken up in January, according to William Zwart, Leichter's legislative counsel. If approved, it would provide investigators with a "hot goods" provision similar to the one in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows the government to confiscate goods if wages are underpaid or withheld.
Another proposal would make manufacturers liable for their contractors' failure to pay wages. Leichter and State Sen. Nicholas Spano of Westchester, chairman of the labor committee, plan to hold a public hearing this fall, Zwart said.
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