Byline: Laurie Ammerman

ALBANY, N.Y. — State legislators expect to introduce by early next year several measures aimed at combating sweatshops.
Felix Ortiz (D., Kings), chairman of the Assembly Subcommittee on Sweatshops, held the first in a series of hearings last Thursday to address worker protection issues in the apparel industry and to prepare for bills he plans to introduce in January at the beginning of the next legislative session to strengthen workers’ compensation laws.
Ortiz’s district includes the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, which is estimated to have 400 sweatshops, according to Geri Reilly, counsel to Catherine Nolan (D., Queens), chairwoman of the Assembly Labor Committee. The hearings in Sunset Park included testimony from factory operators and workers from the area.
“At times, it seemed emotional because people seeking worker’s compensation had waited months for benefits, and some employers had even denied that the people worked for them,” Reilly said.
In transcripts of the hearing, one garment worker, Bao Zhi Ni, told the committee, “For many long hours, I work without proper safety equipment and under filthy conditions. I work at least 11 or 12 hours every day, but because the bosses depress the wage so low, we can only make $20 to $30 a day.”
Ortiz is drafting legislation that would strengthen existing measures, such as the minimum wage law, to protect apparel industry workers.
“The biggest problem is that the Department of Labor is not enforcing the minimum wage law,” Ortiz said.
He plans to draw up legislation that would increase the number of DOL enforcement agents and require them to inspect contractors more frequently to verify that their registration, worker’s compensation and time cards are in compliance with the law.
Ortiz also intends to introduce a separate bill that would require truckers to verify that a contractor had registered with the Labor Department prior to accepting shipments.
Several bills were introduced in the 1996-97 legislative session that dealt with the garment industry. The Unpaid Wages Prohibition Act, which was signed Sept. 17 by Gov. George Pataki, is intended to make it easier for workers to file claims for unpaid wages with the DOL and to allow them to collect up to six years in back wages.

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