FEWER SWEATSHOPS IN 2001
Byline: Kristi Ellis
WASHINGTON — New York and San Francisco appear to have taken great strides to clean up their garment industries.
The U.S. Department of Labor, which on Thursday released its biannual garment compliance surveys of 2001, revealed that contractors have dramatically improved compliance with a wide range of labor laws in the past two years.
“This is good news, but it is the first good news,” Tammy McCutchen, Labor’s newly installed Wage & Hour Administrator, said in a phone interview. “Even if we are satisfied that [93 percent of employees receive the correct minimum wage] in New York City, we have to make sure that is maintained.”
McCutchen said she was “disappointed” that only 62 percent of all employees were paid the correct overtime in New York shops, even though it was a 20 percent improvement over 1999.
Overall, federal investigators in New York found that 52 percent of all shops — compared with 37 percent in 1997 and 35 percent in 1999 — were in compliance with the minimum wage, overtime, child labor and record-keeping requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“Overall, compliance took a big jump and I’m very happy with that,” said McCutchen. “Of course, it was 52 percent of firms overall and that is still not where we want it to be.”
Federal officials recovered $1.05 million in back wages for 1,821 garment workers in New York City in fiscal year 2001.
Labor officials investigated 67 randomly selected contracting shops in New York, employing a combined total of 2,007 employees, for the survey. About 87 percent of the firms paid the correct minimum-wage rate, compared with 69 percent in 1999, while 52 percent complied with overtime laws, compared with 39 percent in 1999.
The severity of violations found also continued to decrease in New York shops. In 2001, the average back wages due per employee was $251, down from $516 in 1999. Additionally, investigators found no child labor violations.
“We see increased compliance and decreased severity,” said McCutchen. “That shows that our multipronged approach — compliance assistance, partnering with industry and advocacy groups and strong enforcement, including criminal prosecution and Hot Goods — is having an effect in this industry.”
That approach was implemented during the Clinton administration under Labor Secretary Robert Reich and later by his successor, Alexis Herman. It is one that McCutchen plans to carry forward. McCutchen said she will focus on small and new businesses, as well as overtime education this year.
“In the garment industry, you still find some of most serious violation of the FLSA against workers who are vulnerable,” she said.
Of note, the last Labor survey in Los Angeles in 2000, revealed that only one in three garment contracting shops were in compliance with federal labor laws. Its findings indicated a step backward in industry compliance since the 1998 survey.
Susan Cowell, a vice president of UNITE, said the new results showed significant improvement in New York’s garment contracting shops.
“We worked very hard the past couple of years on a concerted enforcement program in our shops in conjunction with the Garment Industry Development Corp. and Labor to find innovative ways to enforce standards,” said Cowell.
Cowell said the most pressing problem in New York is the massive loss of jobs and union members since Sept. 11. She said the most dramatic loss of union members was concentrated in Chinatown, where union membership dropped from more than 15,000 to an estimated 10,000 after the attacks. That brings the total UNITE membership in New York down to under 25,000, she said.
In San Francisco, the overall compliance rate stood at 75 percent, compared with 74 percent in 1999, 79 percent in 1997 and 57 percent in 1995.
Labor officials recovered back wages of $131,350 for 206 garment workers in fiscal year 2001.
“A compliance rate of 75 percent is a good number, but there is still room for improvement,” said Randall Harris, executive director of San Francisco Fashion Industries, an industry trade group representing about 200 apparel firms. “We have 30 percent of the contractors we had 10 years ago.”
At its peak, the contracting industry in northern California stood at about 400 shops. Today, that number is between 100 and 150, Harris said.
Labor’s survey results, based on random investigations of 48 firms producing apparel in northern California (San Francisco and Alameda Counties) with a combined 1,120 workers, revealed that 94 percent were paying the right minimum wage, compared with 87 percent in 1999, while 75 percent were complying with overtime provisions.
The severity of the violations, which did not include child labor, also decreased. In 2001, the average back wages due per employee were $212, down from $299 in 1999.
Harris attributed higher compliance rates to contractor compliance training programs as well as a much smaller employment base.
“This is a closer-knit community and it’s not as divisive,” said Harris. “It’s easier to communicate the issues and it’s easier for enforcement agencies to do their job.”