DALLAS DILEMMA: TOO MUCH HOMEWORK
Byline: Rusty Williamson
DALLAS — With the largest concentration of illegal homeworkers in the nation, this city has become the focus of a fight to monitor and clean up apparel production.
An official from the Department of Labor met last month with a group of local manufacturers, including some of Dallas’s largest makers, and agreed to form a compliance coalition that would collectively try to stamp out illegal sewing operations and assure worker rights. The group, now in the process of formally organizing, is similar to a group formed last year in Los Angeles called the Compliance Alliance.
“My advice to the new Dallas group is to make a concerted effort to speak with a united voice, especially to the retail community,” said Richard Reinis, executive director of Compliance Alliance and an attorney for many apparel firms. “The whole movement to get garment workers paid fairly will fail if the retail community doesn’t get behind it.”
Internally, Reinis said, the Dallas faction should take cues from the Compliance Alliance: Keep extremely close tabs on contractor activities and even match bodies to timecards to insure accountability.
A united effort is paramount to getting the message across, said Reinis, adding that in-house monitoring doesn’t work nearly as effectively as collective policing of labor law compliance.
Bruce Cranford, Southwest regional coordinator for Labor’s Wage and Hour division, estimated 110 women’s apparel manufacturers, 400 sewing contractors and more than 40,000 garment workers — half of them home sewers — are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. About 90 percent of home sewers here are Hispanic or Asian immigrants who live in the suburbs of Arlington and Garland.
As a comparison, Cranford said Southern California, including Los Angeles and Orange Counties, has some 1,000 manufacturers, 5,000 sewing contractors and 120,000 workers, with 40 to 50 percent homeworkers. New York has about 800 domestic vendors and 4,000 contractors employing around 100,000 people, with just about 5 percent home sewers, according to Cranford.
Unlike sweatshop scenarios characterized by a slave-like environment, child labor abuses or poor sanitary conditions, as have been uncovered in the last couple of years in New York and California, the problems in Dallas are most prominently tied to defrauding workers out of proper wages. Wage and hour violations are also big issues in New York and California.
“The biggest problem in Dallas women’s apparel manufacturing is the nonpayment of minimum wages and overtime to contract sewers who are paid a piece rate,” Cranford said.
Homeworker piece-rate pay varies by the type of garments being sewn, but industry sources claim it would be equivalent to $3 to $5 per hour. The national minimum wage is $5.15, while the average hourly apparel worker wage in the U.S. is $9.56, according to Werner International, a New York-based textile and apparel consulting firm.
DOL regulations prohibit the production of certain women’s or children’s apparel in the home unless a special homework certificate has been issued, as is the case for handicapped or impaired workers, for example.
Originally, such apparel sewing wasn’t banned from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 but was prohibited starting in the early Forties after the government discovered rampant exploitation of women’s and children’s garment workers, often forced to take work home if it wasn’t completed at quitting time. The abuse included nonpayment of minimum wages and overtime.
The restrictions did not include men’s apparel because supposedly such garments weren’t easily made on home equipment. But the ban did include six other disparate categories of fashion-related items that were dropped from the list in the Eighties.
The women’s and children’s prohibition remains, according to Cranford, because women’s apparel unions won a court injunction halting the lifting of the ban “until such time that the DOL can demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction that it can effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime provisions for those workers.”
“We couldn’t meet that requirement at this time because the violation rate is so high in the garment industry,” explained Cranford, who — under the reform crusade spearheaded by Robert Reich, then Labor Secretary — continues to enforce compliance with minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA.
Cranford’s new boss, if confirmed by the Senate, will be Alexis Herman, following Reich’s decision to return to private life. It is unclear how vigorously Herman will continue Reich’s anti-sweatshop campaign.
In Dallas, the DOL has racked up an impressive record in the past two years, conducting some 150 investigations in the area that recovered almost $600,000 in back wages for more than 1,100 workers.
Cranford vowed to continue the fight, but is looking to apparel vendors for help. He’s asking makers to set up individual and collective monitoring and enforcement policies for optimal long-term enforcement of the FLSA. Most are proving more than a little responsive.
“We’re seeing Dallas makers take a more active role in compliance,” said Cranford. “It really has to start at the vendor level. Know your contractors.”
The typical path to underground home sewing starts when a maker hires a legitimate contractor to sew or finish garments. Perhaps seeking to save money or speed up production, the contractor may subcontract the work order to home sewers, usually paying by the piece with no overtime.
That’s where the DOL comes in, conducting targeted enforcement raids looking for illegal home sewing operations.
If the contractor doesn’t come up with the back wages, the DOL can play a trump card in the FLSA called the “hot goods” provision, which makes it illegal for any person to ship or sell goods that have been made by employees who aren’t paid properly. So, if the contractor doesn’t pay the back wages, the manufacturer had better do so if it doesn’t want to lose the merchandise.
The irony is that many makers aren’t aware that their contractors are hiring subcontractors or are in violation of labor laws.
“Unless you camp out by the front and back doors and stay there 24 hours, you can’t know what’s always going on at the contractor,” said Mike Ferguson, president of Focus Apparel, a $30 million dress and sportswear house here.
“It used to be that the vendor was as informed as what the contractor told him,” said Ferguson. “That’s why we now have our own in-house monitoring program. We check these people out. If we or the DOL find a violation, we stop doing business immediately until the situation is resolved. And if it’s not, then we don’t go back.”
Jerell Inc., a $60 million diversified dress and sportswear firm that is considered the largest in Dallas, has a similar post. It’s also found favor with the DOL for its monitoring program.
Jerell, like many Dallas makers, has a monitoring agreement with the DOL in an effort to sniff out illegal home sewing operations and underpaying contractors.
It’s landed Jerell a spot on the DOL’s Trendsetter list, which highlights vendors and stores that have taken responsibility for monitoring the practices of their contractors.
DeCorp Inc., a women’s apparel manufacturer here owned by Kellwood Co. of St. Louis, is also on the Trendsetter list.
“We’re acting like arms of the government to make sure everyone is legitimate and above board,” said Ed Vierling, Jerrel’s president and chief executive officer. “When you have to start monitoring it yourself and asking the right questions, these [illegal operators] start evaporating. If people get lax again, though, the problem will get out of hand again.”
One manufacturer who asked for anonymity said if the contractors don’t clean up their acts and the threat of goods being seized doesn’t abate, he’ll consider using an 807 operation in the Caribbean or in Mexico.
“My favorite contractor does all home sewing, and we don’t use her anymore,” said the vendor. “She cried and cried and reasoned that her small children needed her at home and she had to work there. She said I was putting the Vietnamese, Korean and Spanish communities out of business. I’m sorry, but I simply can’t jeopardize my business.”
The manufacturer said he agreed to give the contractor sample and duplicate work and pay by the hour only if she agreed to report it.
“She didn’t even know how,” said the vendor. “Sometimes you think they’re making up the Social Security numbers.”
A Vietnamese contractor who claims to be playing by the rules said the factory doors will soon have to close if work from Dallas makers didn’t come soon.
This contractor would only speak anonymously, claiming he feared death threats from an Asian underground that loosely controls a large group of contract shops and home sewers and resents his pro-government stance.
“There’s no work to do,” said the contractor. “Manufacturers are starting to send everything to Mexico because they can’t hire the illegal contractors.”
They also don’t want to pay legal wages in the U.S., he said, adding, “If I follow what I’m doing now, then I can’t stay in business.”
Most Dallas manufacturers remain cautious but hopeful that the sweatshop problem will abate with close monitoring.
Joe Allen, an apparel industry consultant and anti-sweatshop advocate, said sweatshops are simply putting legitimate contractors out of business.
“The sweatshop in Dallas has moved to the living room with the rise of the home sewers,” said Allen, who is also a retired apparel manufacturer. “There are probably more sweatshops in Arlington, Tex., than anywhere between the two coasts.”
Allen works with government officials to seek out illegal operations and stays in close touch with the DOL’s Cranford, who thinks a turnaround may be near.
“I really believe that we’re on the verge of turning the corner,” said Cranford. “The makers have realized that they do play a part in improving compliance, and we have a handful who are seizing the initiative to make sure garment workers are going to be paid.”