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U.S. Labor Asks Makers in L.A. for Cooperation

LOS ANGELES -- On the heels of a survey that revealed widespread abuse of labor laws in California's garment industry, the U.S. Labor Department held a meeting here to seek cooperation from the manufacturing community in curbing violations.<BR><BR>The...

LOS ANGELES — On the heels of a survey that revealed widespread abuse of labor laws in California’s garment industry, the U.S. Labor Department held a meeting here to seek cooperation from the manufacturing community in curbing violations.

The two-hour meeting held recently at the State Office Building attracted about 100 people, including representatives of several local manufacturer and contractor groups: the Coalition of Apparel Industries, the American Chinese Contractors Association, the Korean American Garment Industry Association and the Garment Contractors Association. Several major manufacturers, including Guess Inc., were also represented.

Unlike past meetings, which many participants characterized as confrontational, this one had no heated exchanges.

Labor officials spent much of the time trying to convince the audience that teamwork and education could solve many of the industry’s labor problems.

“We are not here to point blame,” said Victoria Bradshaw, California State Labor Commissioner. “We would like to see more participation, so we can make larger strides in compliance. Enforcement alone is not enough.”

“We need to pressure everyone to [create] a level playing field,” added Rolene Otero, district director of the Los Angeles Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Labor Department.

Bradshaw and Otero also took the opportunity to discuss findings of their recent survey of the industry. Conducted in late February and early March, the random survey of 70 garment businesses statewide — names were chosen by computer from quarterly tax records — revealed, among other things, that 50.7 percent violated minimum wage laws, that 68.1 percent violated overtime pay regulations and that 72.5 percent had record-keeping errors. The error margin was 5 percent.

While admitting that the apparel industry has its labor problems, Bernard Brown, chairman of the Coalition of Apparel Industries, a political advocacy group here, took issue with the survey, results of which were made public last week.

“Vicki,” he said, addressing Bradshaw, “you are hurting the total industry [image] when you release these figures. You can’t paint the industry with a big, broad brush.”

Otero defended the survey, calling it “statistically balanced.” She admitted, however, “With about 60 agencies to answer to, it is difficult to know what all the laws are.”

Brown said the coalition is pushing officials at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising downtown here to offer monthly classes for manufacturers and contractors on the laws as well as on costing, so that contractors understand “what they are getting into when they sign contracts.”

The classes will be held in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean to serve the multicultural industry here, he said.

Joe Rodriguez, executive director of the Garment Contractors Association here, invited the labor department’s “educational advisory committees” to meet monthly with members of the apparel industry to keep it informed of existing and new laws.

Martin Leal, contractor compliance officer for Guess, requested that labor officials notify manufacturers after raids on contractors.

“We want to know not only about those who had violations, but also those who had none,” he said.

Bradshaw said sweeps targeting the state’s sewing shops would continue. She also said that her agency would work with the State Employment Development Department to require businesses seeking registration to sign a release authorizing the IRS to verify that principals have no outstanding tax liabilities.

Elaborating on this development, Bradshaw told WWD after the meeting, “We want to insure that people are operating above ground. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we are registering responsible, competent garment manufacturers.”

Individuals with outstanding tax liabilities would not have their business registrations renewed, she said.

The labor commissioner also brought up the idea of systematic audits of apparel businesses.

Manufacturers and contractors appeared to view the session in a positive light.