Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — While it’s almost impossible to get a firm handle on the number of sweatshops operating in the U.S., government agencies try to keep track of how prevalent the problem is by tracking enforcement activity.
A fall 1999 federal survey of 93 sewing shops in New York found about a third violated wage laws, almost the same number in a survey two years before. In May and June the agency will be testing in that city again, along with a repeat survey in San Francisco, where last year inspectors found that only one-third of the 67 garment factories inspected paid legal wages.
On the federal level, during the last five years of the Clinton administration, Department of Labor inspectors collected about $15 million in back wages for garment workers at 3,329 contractors. The bulk of the violations the department uncovers relate to wages.
However, the federal sewing shop inspection system has shown its limits of effectiveness, given that Labor has 949 inspectors nationwide responsible for keeping tabs on conditions at an estimated 8 million workplaces, including garment contractors. About six years ago, the agency estimated there were 35,000 U.S. garment contractors.