DALLAS MAKERS PUSHED TO MONITOR CONTRACTORS

Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON--The Labor Department's garment industry watchdogs are putting more pressure on Dallas apparel makers to commit to federal monitoring programs and make sure their contractors are complying with wage laws, much like those established in California for three years.
"They are not going willingly," said Bruce Cranford, the southwest regional garment coordinator for Labor's Wage and Hour Division.
Frustrated by what Cranford said are contractors' widespread use of home sewers and underpayment of workers, agency officials are ready to use their ultimate weapon against repeat offenders: going to court to halt "hot goods" apparel shipments produced in violation of labor laws.
After almost two years of cajoling manufacturers, the agency has only been able to persuade four firms to commit to the monitoring program, which requires a maker to sign an agreement with the U.S. detailing how they should administer the plan. This includes periodic interviews with workers and reviews of time cards. The participating firms are Treage Ltd., maker of the Ann Tobias line of high-end women's sportswear sold in specialty stores, and private label women's apparel manufacturers Jones of Dallas, Rod Roberts and JLT Inc. Treage was the latest to sign, with the Labor Department announcing the agreement on June 22.
About a dozen others have been notified at least once that their contractors are either illegally employing home sewers or not paying the federal minimum wage or overtime, Cranford said. Eight of these have been told of multiple contractor violations. All have declined to enter into the federal monitoring program, assuring investigators they would embark on one of their own.
"At some point it becomes a question of good faith," Cranford said. "We're not necessarily opposed to them developing their own plans as long as they work. After the fifth or 10th time a contractor is caught, and we notify manufacturers they have been shipping hot goods, there comes a point where we have no other alternative but to litigate."
Under this specter of increased pressure, Cranford said the agency is in talks with three manufacturers about signing up for the federal monitoring program, known as the long form. He said he can't explain the widespread reluctance of Dallas manufacturers to enter into the program. Those who sign the long form and follow its terms are less likely to have their goods detained if a contractor is found in violation of labor laws, he said.
"Unless the violations are really egregious we're not going to litigate. We'll work with manufacturers one on one," Cranford said. "We view the long form as not being adversarial. We view it as a partnership."
"Signing the long form seems to be a sticking point. It is something relatively new here," he said. "They seem to think it's not their place to tell a contractor how to run their business. We're telling manufacturers they own the goods they send to contractors and when their contractors are found in violation, there is a distinct probability manufacturers will receive and ship hot goods again. These are not isolated instances. They are repeat problems."
Dallas apparel makers queried for comment, including Jerell, H&IA Fashions, Byn-Mar and Focus Apparel, did not return telephone calls. The apparel makers who have committed to the federal monitoring programs either declined comment for attribution or did not return calls.
One manufacturer said there was no other option but to sign on.
"This is just like taxes. I don't want to do it. It costs money. It slows down production. They got my attention very quickly because I don't want to take the chance that any of my goods will be confiscated," said the manufacturer.
The manufacturer further noted fears that contractor prices would increase because of being forced to pay legal wages haven't surfaced. "I think competition with Mexico has had more of an impact on small operations in Dallas than this program."
Another participating manufacturer, though, said the monitoring program would force small firms to close because of added costs. The official also noted the difficulty in keeping tabs on contractors. "I can't be there 24 hours a day," he said.
The Dallas apparel industry, which is largely focused on women's sportswear, is much smaller in scope and has smaller companies than in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the agency has been primarily focusing its garment enforcement. The largest Dallas manufacturers, of which there are about five, have sales of no more than $50 million to $60 million, compared to upward of $200 million for several California makers, according to Cranford. Most Dallas manufacturers have sales well under $10 million.
Apparel contracting is also different in Dallas, remaining largely tied to illegal home sewing operations, Cranford said. Home sewers cropped up in the Eighties to meet demand created by manufacturers shutting down production because of rising costs.
Before the agency decided to leverage manufacturers' influence over contractors, Labor investigators in Dallas took the tack of cracking down on contractors. The agency's goal of creating an above-board contracting industry never took hold. In fact, home sewing has become even more difficult to detect as unscrupulous contractors seek out seamstresses in the outlying Dallas suburbs, or as far away as Oklahoma or Arkansas, who are willing to pick up and deliver orders at their own expense, Cranford said.
--Fairchild News Service

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