The U.S. Department of Labor said sweatshops persist in the California garment industry, disclosing violations of minimum-wage and overtime laws at contract factories that made clothes sold at Ross Stores, TJ Maxx, Forever 21, Nordstrom, Macy’s and other retailers.
At a press conference held at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, Calif., on Nov. 16, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division reported that 85 percent of the 77 cases it investigated this year were found to be guilty of violating federal laws. As a result, more than $1.3 million in back wages were determined to be owed to workers. Ross, TJ Maxx and Forever 21 were the top three retailers cited as clients of the contractors who were found not to be in compliance with the laws. The contractors also produced clothes sold at Dillard’s, Charlotte Russe, Windsor and Fashion Nova.
“We have sweatshops in America,” said Ruben Rosalez, regional administrator for the Wage and Hour Division. “Our next step is to try and engage the retailers. We’d like them to do monitoring. They really have the power at the top.”
A key issue is the apparel industry’s practice of paying workers for each piece of clothing that they produce. That’s how Maria Ramirez, who has spent 26 years trimming and finishing clothes, averaged $5 to $6 an hour, or half of the state minimum wage set at $10 an hour, in earnings. She worked for a contractor called Sam’s Fashion that makes clothes for Ross.
“I didn’t even have enough for the things that I needed, like rent, food and a babysitter for my kids,” she said. “I basically had enough to live in poverty.”
Rosalez said his team has met with Ross and Forever 21, offering them findings from the investigations prior to the announcement. A meeting with TJ Maxx is scheduled for Thursday.
Ross, the Dublin, Calif.-based operator of discount stores that totaled $11.9 billion in sales in 2015, added 93 new locations thus far this year for an overall count exceeding 1,340 stores. On its Web site, it publicizes a policy regarding product sourcing and human rights. Rosalez said most of the efforts to assure compliance are geared for overseas factories.
“The supply chain is not monitoring for this problem,” he said. “[Retailers] have been open; they acknowledge it is a problem. They want to find a solution but they haven’t gone far enough.”
To goad the retailers into action this holiday season, Garment Worker Center, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of low-wage apparel employees, plans to stage a picket line in front of Ross’ store near The Grove on Nov. 19.
In response to the investigation, a spokeswoman for Ross said, “Ross Stores takes labor issues very seriously and we require our suppliers to uphold our ethical standards. We also work with the Department of Labor to make sure our vendors understand and comply with the applicable federal, state, local and international laws related to products we purchase and sell, and this is an ongoing and continuous effort.”
Forever 21 and TJ Maxx didn’t respond to requests for comment as of press time.