Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — The Labor Department has become a little more tolerant of contractor violations in its anti-sweatshop crusade.
Until recently, a garment contractor found on an inspection visit to owe a minimum of $2,500 in back wages would end up on Labor’s bad-guy list. This would trigger calls to the manufacturer that placed the order and to the retailer selling the clothes, informing them of the contractor’s infractions.
Citing a need to be more strategic in their anti-sweatshop efforts and allow for contractor oversights, Labor officials have raised the minimum to $5,000 per contractor visit. This new benchmark also applies to when retailers, in turn, get their name included on Labor’s quarterly anti-sweatshop enforcement report.
The agency has been using adverse publicity to get retailers to pressure apparel manufacturers to do business only with contractors monitored for wage violations.
“We’re becoming more focused on how to get the message across,” said Maria Echaveste, administrator of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, explaining that the new violation benchmark is designed to focus on more “serious problems.”
However, Richard Reinis, executive director of the Compliance Alliance, a group of 13 apparel manufacturers that share the cost of monitoring their 250 contractors in Los Angeles, said the new limit is still too low to be fair. He said he questioned whether it was meaningful for Labor to inform retailers of anything but major violations. He also questioned whether there was value in informing retailers about first-time violations.
“[The higher minimum] is not going to have the salutary effect of involving the retailer more in compliance efforts,” Reinis said. As a matter of course, retailers are already sending suppliers terse letters about the need for contractors to follow the law, he noted, but there is no insistence on monitoring.