N.Y. TO FIGHT SWEATSHOPS WITH SUDDEN INSPECTIONS

Byline: Elizabeth Morrow

ALBANY, N.Y. — A year after New York passed legislation to increase its powers in fighting sweatshops, state lawmakers are planning measures to audit its achievements. They include surprise inspections at suspected sweatshops in New York City by Sen. Nicholas Spano (R., Westchester) on Friday.
Spano, who chairs the Senate Labor Committee, plans to view sweatshop operations during inspections with UNITE officials.
“We’ll see first-hand some of the concerns,” he said.
Spano and Catherine Nolan (D., Manhattan), chairwoman of the Assembly Labor Committee, have also introduced a joint responsibility bill in their respective houses to charge manufacturers and contractors with joint liability, broadening the state’s powers in enforcing labor law and addressing some gaps that have been pointed out in “hot goods” legislation that went into effect last year.
That legislation made it unlawful for manufacturers to ship, deliver, sell or purchase any apparel from sweatshops that were in violation of labor law. It also allowed for the compilation of names and home addresses registered by manufacturers with the State Department of Labor and enabled Attorney General Dennis Vacco to seize the goods of a sweatshop.
Ongoing actions to verify the impact of the legislation also include the possibility of a task force. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D., Manhattan) said the task force would “look around the city and see if we can do a little better and fix up some laws.” Silver indicated he wanted to make sure the laws passed last year are being implemented properly.
A third measure is being put forth by Nolan, who plans to write to the Department of Labor and the Attorney General asking for a review of the year. “We intended to do it on the year anniversary of the bills, which is roughly at this time of year,” said Nolan. “I think the timing is right to ask for the accounting and updating from the agencies that implement what we do.”
Ed Vargas, director of the New York State Council of UNITE, who will accompany Spano on the sweatshop inspections, said, “We want them to see not only the sweatshops, but we want them to see the surroundings of the garment district. It will be wonderful for them to have this kind of exposure.”
Spano said he has met informally with Labor Commissioner John Sweeney regarding the progress of the department and feels the commissioner has been forthcoming in cracking down on illegal activities.
Recent charges that the Department of Labor does not verify the authenticity of ownership information provided by manufacturers — by means such as photo identification, for example — have raised questions that some of the data on record is fraudulent.
“Regarding loopholes in the law, there is always room for legislation to be tightened up,” said UNITE’s Vargas. “We still need further legislation. We have to step up the staffing to support it and police it.”
Violations of labor law sometimes occur when a manufacturer contracts with a jobber — such as a zipper or button manufacturer — for the assembly of items of apparel, Nolan said. The purpose of this legislation is to establish liability with the manufacturer, who would benefit from the jobber’s illegal performance.
In response, Sweeney said, “While there are some proposals, such as the joint responsibility bill, I think at this point that would be premature.” He said the Department of Labor has contacted more than 4,000 employers and made 2,500 investigations in the past two years. “There is never going to be enough enforcement to be able to close all of the sweatshops,” he added. “There is a problem with language and with the labor laws, which the [contractors] do not understand. It takes time to do these explanations. A task force couldn’t do it.”

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