Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — As the private label explosion continues throughout the apparel industry, retailers are increasingly being faced with some of the same problems that have confronted manufacturers. One of them is the existence of sweatshops.
As labor leaders and government officials met Monday to observe the 84th anniversary of perhaps the most tragic incident involving a sweatshop — the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 people here in 1911 — they talked about making retailers more accountable for where they produce their private label goods.
“We need to bring the problem out to retailers,” said Edgar Romney, executive vice president of the ILGWU, after a forum at New York University’s Bobst Library. “I’m not totally sure that they’re aware of the magnitude of the problem, especially the corporate executives. Often the retailers are not aware of the circumstances under which their goods are manufactured.”
After the meeting, Romney said that a number of major retailers — among them, J.C. Penney, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Sears, Wal-Mart and Kmart — have had private label goods produced in sweatshops without their knowledge. When the matter was brought to their attention, he said, some of them took corrective action or moved the job to another site.
By sharpening the focus on key retailers that produce private label goods, the Department of Labor could take a significant step toward eliminating sweatshops, said Maria Echaveste, director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division, one of the panelists.
She said her office is “exploring opportunities” to get retailers more involved, but she has not yet developed a specific strategy.
About 150 people turned out at the Bobst Library’s Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives for the first such forum held in conjunction with the Triangle fire. Many of the victims perished because they were trapped on the top three floors of a 10-story building with locked and obstructed exits and unfinished fire escapes.
It was an issue that helped generate much public support for the ILGWU, which had been founded only 11 years earlier.
Sponsored by the ILGWU and the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, the forum was chaired by Jay Mazur, president of the union, and featured panelists John Sweeney, commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor, and Muzaffar Chisthi, director of the ILGWU Immigration project, in addition to Echaveste.
Echaveste and Sweeney each emphasized their commitment to improving workers’ conditions in the apparel industry.
Romney suggested holding a summit for manufacturers, contractors and retailers to address the ramifications of price pressures and tightening margins pervading the industry.
Pointing out that sweatshop conditions are still pervasive, Echaveste said that during a survey of California garment shops conducted last year by the U.S. Department of Labor, investigators determined that more than 65 percent of the shops failed to pay overtime wages, more than half the shops failed to pay minimum wages, and at least 30 percent had safety violations.
Conducting investigative sweeps of sweatshops and implementing the “hot goods” provision, which prohibits shipping or selling any sweatshop goods to retailers, are the most effective ways of eliminating sweatshops, she said.
Pledging his commitment to the apparel industry, Sweeney, whose father was an ILGWU official, said one of his three primary goals is to assure that workers’ rights are enforced and improved. It is the government’s responsibility to protect employees who cannot protect or speak up for themselves, he said.
Despite budget constraints and the potential for further reductions, Gov. George E. Pataki’s new administration is committed to the Department of Labor Apparel Industry Task Force, which aims to eliminate industry abuses, Sweeney said.
He said he hopes to designate more labor department officials to survey the apparel industry. “In the past, many people [in the worker protection division] were more concerned about raising revenue rather than enforcing safety,” he said. “We’re not the tax department; we’re the labor department. I think people will be surprised by our commitment.”
Mazur said the extent of the sweatshop problem “is not a trade union issue.”
“It involves exploitation, degradation, child labor and human suffering. It’s a broad-based issue,” Mazur said.
Labor officials and union leaders were pleased with the 90-minute discussion, which focused on the need for all facets of the apparel industry to work together and identify violators.
After a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the fire on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, Mazur said: “There seems to be a clearer sensitivity on the state and federal level. We’ll continue to work to keep the problem from becoming worse.”
Thomas Glubiak, chief labor standards investigator for the labor task force, said there are about 1,750 sweatshops in New York City. Decreased funding for enforcement, greed and increased immigration have compounded the problem in the last 10 years, he said.
The task force could be more effective if manufacturers and retailers offered anonymous tips about sweatshops, Glubiak said.
“Our function is not to put people out of business. Our function is to keep the industry from destroying itself,” he said. “Our efforts have kept a second fire from happening.”