Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — As part of an ongoing investigation into how the state can combat the proliferation of sweatshops in New York, the Senate Labor Committee met here Tuesday to hear testimony from government agencies, apparel groups and sweatshop workers.
The labor committee plans to introduce a series of legislative measures next year to tighten the state’s labor laws. The goal is to close loopholes that have allowed sweatshops to continue operating illegally here.
The most hotly debated piece of legislation at the hearing, which was held at 270 Broadway, was the joint responsibility bill introduced earlier this year. That bill would hold manufacturers of apparel financially liable for wage violations at contractors they use. The bill passed the Assembly, but was not taken up by the Senate before the end of the legislative session.
Ted Potrikus, vice president and director of public affairs for the Retail Council of New York State, testified that the state’s largest retail lobbying group opposes any measure tod hold a maker or retailer liable for violations by contractors.
“Under the law, retailers take full responsibility for their own employees, not the employees of manufacturers,” Potrikus said. “Requiring retailers to act as labor inspectors is neither an appropriate or an effective solution.”
However, several speakers disagreed. Jay Mazur, president of UNITE, and Irwin Kahn, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, charged that sweatshops continue to operate because of retailers’ demands on manufacturers to produce apparel with higher profit margins.
“The problem is that the law does not hold these retailers and manufacturers responsible for the pressures they set in motion,” Mazur said.
Sen. Catherine M. Abate told WWD after the hearing that while the retail industry has initiated some measures to self-police its contractors, “you can’t leave a systematic problem to a voluntary solution.”
“Without the responsibility being taken by the retailer and the manufacturer,” she added, “I’m afraid we’re never going to change the pattern of practice.”
The committee also discussed the effectiveness of recently enacted legislation such as the hot goods bill and enhanced registration. The hot goods bill empowered the state attorney general to stop the sale of goods made in sweatshops and to recover unpaid wages. Enhanced registration requires apparel contractors to register the Social Security numbers, names and home addresses of their owners with the Department of Labor.
Abate asked James Dillon, acting commissioner of the Labor Department, why the number of its Apparel Industry Task Force investigations has decreased since 1990 while the number of sweatshops in New York is reportedly on the rise. In 1990, there were 1,776 investigations; in 1996, there were 1,270, Abate said.
“We’re attempting to target ourselves to the most effective end,” Dillon replied, adding that the new legislation has enabled Labor to focus on operations that are more likely in violation of labor laws.
“Just going out and doing blind investigations is not as effective as the targeted approach,” Dillon said.
Enhanced registration, for example, helped identify manufacturing companies that would require follow-up investigations, thereby allowing the department to focus more resources on targeted investigations. The task force has been working to educate companies on how to comply with labor laws.
Abate also asked whether Labor had enough investigators committed to the task force, considering several of its allotted 34 positions are vacant.
Dick Polfinello, director of labor standards, which oversees the task force, told WWD the department has budgeted for the eight vacant positions. However, the task force is plagued with a high turnover rate, and there are seven other vacant positions throughout the department.
Dan DeVita, labor bureau chief to State Attorney General Dennis Vacco, said 70 criminal charges have been filed against sweatshops since 1995 as a result of the new laws, and cooperation with Labor. All of the cases were referred by Labor.
DeVita added that $74,000 was collected in criminal restitution in 1996, compared with $2,000 in 1993. New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen testified that the fire department has responded to 115 fire code violations this year that were referred by Labor.
At the hearing, Sen. Nicholas A. Spano announced that new bill would make New York the second state to prohibit agencies from purchasing apparel produced in a sweatshop. Vermont already has a similar law on the books, according to UNITE.

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