By  on June 7, 1994

NEW YORK -- Workers and state investigators testifying at a public hearing here urged New York State Sen. Franz S. Leichter of Manhattan to push through his proposed legislation for stricter penalties for sweatshop conditions -- particularly the withholding of wages -- in apparel manufacturing.

The witnesses also spoke of blocked fire escapes, overcrowded facilities and other hazards.

Organized by Leichter, Assemblyman Frank J. Barbaro of Brooklyn and labor committee chairwoman Catherine T. Nolan of Queens, the three-hour session, held Friday, also included testimony from lobbyists and state officials. Barbaro and Nolan were unable to attend.

Leichter and Barbaro have introduced bills in the New York State legislature that, if approved, would:

  • Make it a felony to not pay wages due to workers.
  • Increase fines substantially for failure to pay wages -- from 25 percent of the wages due currently to twice the total amount.
  • Make apparel manufacturers liable for their contractors' failure to pay wages.
  • Permit state investigators to confiscate garments if the contractor is unregistered and has three previous violations.
Geri Reilly, counsel to the state assembly labor committee, said the committee group would take the proposed legislation under consideration this week. She said she strongly supported Leichter's proposals.

Speaking with the help of interpreters, eight men and women -- including Asians and Hispanics -- described unventilated facilities and toddlers playing with machinery. Most said unsafe and unsanitary conditions are routine in much of the apparel industry.

Several said employers often withhold wages, violate child labor laws and threaten deportation. Most said wages were well below minimum wage, and unemployment and workers' compensation insurance were never paid.

New York State Commissioner of Labor John F. Hudacs warned that fatal fires such as the well-known Triangle Shirt Waist Factory blaze in 1911 could still happen at numerous locations around the city. Of the approximately 6,000 garment industry employers in the state, he estimated 2,000 to 3,000 run illegal sweatshops.

In 1993, the state's 27 investigators inspected 1,300 locations and issued 700 fines amounting to roughly $674,000, he said. In terms of unpaid wages, the apparel industry task force collected $343,750 for 997 employees who worked in 288 locations, he said.

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