Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — The Labor Department is heating up its war on sweatshops again, and its new campaign seeking recruits could be called, “Get Them While They’re Young.”
Agency officials have dubbed the youth-directed effort “Getta Clue,” and it’s viewed as the first major stab at anti-sweatshop publicity by Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, who took office in April.
While outlining plans for the new campaign, Herman also released findings of a Labor survey of New York City garment contractors that gave the industry there a failing grade. The survey of 94 factories found that 59 had committed violations of federal wage laws. Chinatown factories had the highest number of violations.
Herman underscored the need to monitor such operations, as the industry watches to see if her pressure tactics will be as aggressive as those of her predecessor, Robert Reich. Reich routinely used his office as a bully pulpit on the issue, calling press conferences and staging events to prod apparel manufacturers and retailers into taking action against sweatshops.
Herman’s “Getta Clue” campaign is designed to educate young people about the sweatshop issue. Upon request, the Labor Department will mail packets of sweatshop information to schools, Scout troops or other youthful venues. In addition to a teacher’s guide to sweatshops and a card listing “clues for fashionable teens” to steer people away from apparel made in sweatshops, the agency has created a poster titled, “Life Cycle of a Blue Jean, Sweatshop Style.”
Herman last week chose a joint news conference with the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., to announce the agency’s initiative. At the same time, Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick released plans to add the issue of sweatshops to the curriculum at the archdiocese’s 185 elementary and high schools. The sweatshop studies will be based, in part, on “Getta Clue” and the Labor Department donated $6,000 in materials.
The “Getta Clue” poster traces the steps in ordering, producing and selling a pair of jeans and asks, “How much did you pay for your last pair of blue jeans? And how much of that went to the workers who made those jeans?”
“We think this is a great opportunity to get young kids who care about this issue to get involved,” said Suzanne Seiden, acting deputy administrator of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.
“Getta Clue” is one way Labor officials in the last six months have tried to persuade shoppers to demand that retailers and manufacturers sell apparel made only in factories monitored for acceptable working conditions and wages. In the past, the agency has made adult anti-sweatshop shopping guides available, produced public service announcements and publicized good-guy and bad-guy lists of apparel retailers, manufacturers and contractors.
This is Labor’s first attempt to attract youth to the anti-sweatshop movement, but other organizations have been doing it. Young people have proven to be willing workers for various human rights groups that have singled out for criticism brand-name apparel and footwear companies with a huge clientele of children, adolescents and college students.
Nike — which, like other corporations, has received piles of mail from students accusing the activewear giant of sweatshop practices and has faced repeated protests in front of its stores — now tells its side of the story in brochures distributed next to their products. It also last week launched its own Internet Web site, directed at its core young customer, ages 12 to 17.
“The Internet speaks to kids. We do find they are interested in our data and to find out information on a firsthand basis what we’re doing,” a Nike spokesman said.
The Labor Department also has a sweatshop Web site, on the agency’s Youth Page. “Are the workers who sew your clothes being treated fairly?” asks the agency, directing site visitors to click on an icon that produces a graphic of a burning building as the story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire appears.
Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, credits throngs of protesting youth with helping convince Gap in 1995 to start an independent monitoring program at a contractor in El Salvador after the 2,000 workers employed there complained of maltreatment.
“Children present a much larger problem for the companies. It’s very difficult for companies to say young people are just another special interest group you can’t believe,” Kernaghan said. The anti-sweatshop movement also strikes a nerve with children coming of age, he said. “They feel like they’re doing something as a serious player in society.”
Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, expects the newly empowered anti-sweatshop youth movement, along with other shoppers, to increase its presence in stores this holiday shopping season. Stores need to be prepared, she said.
“I think retailers have a very good story to tell, and they need to make sure that all employees who come in contact with consumers can communicate that story,” she said. “The salespeople should understand their stores’ marketing strategies and how they purchase goods, and the retailers’ clear goal of buying goods only made legally and ethically.”
Labor’s recent New York contractor survey — based on 94 random investigations conducted this summer — will be used as a baseline to determine future improvement or deterioration of contractor compliance with federal wage laws. Of the operations investigated, the agency found 63 percent had violated provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most of the violations occurred at contractors sewing women’s dresses, blouses, shirts, suits and skirts. The investigations recovered $412,300 wages for 1,400 workers.
“These results are unacceptable. They show that neither the department nor the garment industry can become any less diligent,” said Herman. Pointing to the importance of monitoring, she cited a Labor survey this spring in California that showed 87 percent of contractors with monitors consistently are found to be in compliance with labor laws, compared with 68 percent of unmonitored shops, and when wages are underpaid by monitored shops, the amounts are much lower than at unmonitored shops.
“Every worker is entitled to a fair wage, safe working conditions and a sense of dignity and respect,” Herman said.
This is the first time Herman has talked directly about conditions in New York, where there are 4,000 garment contractors; federal officials began beefing up their enforcement efforts there two years ago. Of the contractors investigated, 20 were UNITE union shops, of which 15 had wage violations.
Susan Cowell, a vice president at UNITE, said that while union monitors keep tabs on wages and conditions at contractors, employers at union shops can still short-change workers surreptitiously. “It happens,” she said, blaming the undercutting of wages on pressure from low-cost competition from imports and domestic sweatshops. “We’ve seen real declines in wages and workers in union and nonunion contractors.”
Likewise, manufacturers, contractors and others involved in the city’s garment industry weren’t surprised by the survey’s results.
While federal and state inspectors have increased scrutiny of the garment industry, there has yet to be a consensus about how to — and who should — tackle the myriad issues that prompt contractors to pay lower-than-legal wages.
Charles Wang, executive director of the Greater Blouse, Skirt and Undergarment Association, representing 300 all-union contractors and manufacturers, said the underlying cause of sweatshop conditions continues to be underpriced contracts.
“When the retailer doesn’t offer the kind of prices that would command a decent salary for workers, that’s the beginning of sweatshop conditions,” Wang said. It’s common, he said, for contractors — who are also competing with low-priced imports — to accept a contract offering $3 to $4 to sew a basic blouse when the actual cost is $5.
Underbidding aside, Wang said, there’s also the problem of manufacturers that file for bankruptcy and don’t pay their contractors, which then must go to a bank for a loan to pay workers.
“This situation also occurs when a manufacturer moves from union to nonunion with a new name and a new owner,” Wang continued. “They are changing the name and not paying their contractors.”
Carol Pender, president of CSCC Inc., Hoboken, N.J., an arm of the California contractor monitoring company Cal Safety, said workers’ roles in violating wage laws couldn’t be overlooked. She said the mostly immigrant workers often resent having to be paid according to federal overtime laws, if being paid by the piece brings them higher wages.
“Some workers are requiring the factories to keep double sets of books,” Pender charged. However, manufacturers must share the blame. Often when they’re alerted to potential pitfalls at contractors, they ignore the warnings or implement half-way remedies, she said.
While he did not dismiss Labor’s survey, Bruce Herman, (no relation to Alexis Herman) executive director of the Garment Industry Development Corp., said it’s difficult to determine the true extent of compliance with wage laws in the garment industry.
“I think the survey shows there is clearly a problem. The solution is a difficult one,” said Herman. Last year, the publicly funded GDIC trained 1,000 workers and management at contractors to improve their business.
“A monitoring solution alone is inadequate,” Herman said. “We have to pay attention to the realities of these businesses. One of the reasons we see violations is these shops aren’t efficient enough, so they can’t compete legitimately. We need to increase our efforts to assist the industry in modernizing. It’s one of the aspects overlooked in the discussion.”
As the industry grapples with the increased focus on garment working conditions, those on the front line — the federal and state Labor inspectors — are sharpening their skills to detect violators. Last year the federal Labor Department beefed up its forces on New York City’s garment enforcement beat to 17 investigators; before, there had been just one full-time person. And the state Labor Department’s Apparel Industry Task Force, in place since 1987, has new legislation adding muscle to its work.
Effective Nov. 16, state Labor inspectors can charge apparel contractors with a felony if they are caught for the second time paying less than the state’s minimum wage. A first citation is a misdemeanor and the agency currently has 52 such cases pending. A law that went into effect about a year ago gives inspectors authority to detain garments until wages owed workers are paid, and federal inspectors have used it. So far the state has brought 25 such cases, collecting $500,000 on behalf of 700 workers.
“I don’t think the problems are anything new. It’s the basic greed of individuals,” said Tom Glubiak, chief labor standards investigator of the New York task force. “The majority of the industry is composed of legitimate firms and contractors. But there is still a large amount of individuals out there trying to make a quick buck at someone else’s expense.”
However, Glubiak said, he senses that enforcement efforts and general sweatshop awareness have helped. About 200 to 300 new shops have registered with the state in each of the last three years, largely underground shops that decided to become legitimate, he said. The incidence of child labor — which Glubiak said was common in the late Eighties — has also dropped off.
A new headache for inspectors is what Glubiak described as a gradual shift of some production from the garment shops in Chinatown to Sunset Park in Brooklyn. It’s already difficult to conduct surveillance of sewing shops in crowded low-rise brick buildings in Chinatown, but Sunset Park is another story — buildings there often have no windows and no ready access inside.
“They’re moving into buildings that used to be garages,” he said. “There’s a tendency for these new shops to not comply with safety codes, to fix things up themselves.”