Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — The sweatshop problem has plagued the apparel industry for more than a century and is showing no signs of ebbing in the U.S. or abroad.
If anything, globalization is only driving prices down and prompting retailers and manufacturers to source sharper prices in faraway places where workers are often exploited, underpaid and nonunionized.
That’s how panelists summed up the problem during Thursday’s panel discussion at City University of New York’s Graduate Center in Manhattan, where Fordham University history professor Daniel Soyer, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, UNITE executive vice president Edgar Romney and Chinese Staff and Workers Association leader Trish Duong were among the participants.
The consensus was that not a whole lot has changed with sweatshops since they started cropping up in Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century. The typical sweatshop still employs about 20 people who are often immigrants, and sets them up in cramped, poorly ventilated rooms and often doesn’t pay them the minimum wage or overtime. The issue of who is responsible has been the subject of recent legislative debate and continues to be a key topic, amounting labor activists who who blame contractors and claim that retailers and vendors skirt responsibility for the problem.
New York has about 50,000 apparel production jobs today, compared to 300,000 slots over the last quarter century or so, Romney said. The city now produces 15 percent of the apparel sold in the U.S.
Noting that two-thirds of the apparel sold in the U.S. is through large retailers, Romney urged attendees to hold stores accountable for workers’ rights. Shoppers should ask salespeople about the conditions under which clothes they sell are made, he said. There also needs to be an awareness campaign aimed at students and young people who are often the target of multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns.
Duong stressed that fighting sweatshops isn’t just about securing adequate wages for workers or explaining their rights.
“It’s not a question of education. Every woman I’ve spoken with knows what the minimum wage is, ” she said. “We need to organize workers and give them a real voice that lets them take the initiative and fundamentally challenge this system of exploitation.”
Consumer boycotts are not enough, said Duong, adding that stores need to stop going with the lowest bid for contracted work.
Ortiz, who noted that his mother worked in a New York sweatshop, said he recently toured factories in El Salvador and said similar conditions are evident in China, Singapore, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republican.
While problems exist, activists should keep in mind that the main objective is not to lose jobs, which often happens when factory owners are charged with mistreating workers, Ortiz said. Community leaders and nonprofit groups should join forces to investigate charges and help workers get the wages they deserve, he said. Say No To Sweatshops, for example, a group Ortiz helped set up in Brooklyn, has given back $350,000 in back wages to employees, he said.
Duong offered: “There’s an overemphasis on sweatshops overseas and a real hesitancy to deal with the problem here. That forces us to admit our way of organizing doesn’t work.”