Byline: Scott Malone / With contributions from Joanna Ramey, Washington

NEW YORK — Sunday will mark the 90th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a disaster that claimed the lives of 146 women and started the drive to unionize the U.S. garment industry.
While the event should mark a point in time in a bygone era, it remains a symbolic reminder that the social and industrial factors that led to that tragedy are still alive today.
The infamous fire started late on a Saturday afternoon in 1911, in a cutting room at the Triangle factory, which occupied the top three floors of a 10-story building in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. But based on incidences that have occurred in recent years from El Monte, Calif., to Bangladesh, it could just as easily happen today. As the conflagration spread, fueled by rolls of fabric, some 500 workers discovered their easiest escape routes were blocked, as the factory’s owners kept the doors locked to keep their mostly immigrant employees from leaving their sewing machines.
While some made it down the stairs or fled to the roof, the workers on the ninth floor were unable to force open the locked door. Many, their clothing afire, leapt from the windows. Their bodies, piled in the street, posed an obstacle for the fire trucks to battle the blaze.
A lot has changed in the apparel business over the last 90 years, as a result of that disaster. Labor laws now impose strict safety regulations on U.S. workplaces and with the flurry of publicity that sweatshops have attracted over the past decade, many retailers and wholesalers now require their suppliers around the world to sign agreements stating that they obey local labor laws and do not employ underage workers.
Nonetheless, sweatshops and dangerous working environments remain a fact of life for the apparel industry in major U.S. cities, most industry sources and observers believe. They’re also one of the major exports of the U.S. apparel industry, case in point: the November blaze at a Bangladesh knitwear factory, which claimed the lives of 50 workers and hospitalized about 100 who were unable to escape the flames because the plant’s main gates were locked.
Apparel executives, labor advocates and other industry observers said they believe that sweatshops are still very much a part of today’s industry. Both in major U.S. urban centers — particularly New York and Los Angeles, which have substantial populations of illegal or undocumented immigrants — and abroad, plants continue to operate outside the law.
There are no clear numbers on how many sweatshops are in existence today, as illegal operations are inherently hard to track. In the mid-Nineties, the Clinton administration estimated that half of the 22,000 apparel contractors then operating in the U.S. were in violation of labor laws.
Opinions differ on how prevalent sweatshops remain in the U.S. today: While most sources said that the absolute number of sweatshops has likely dropped over the past two decades along with the overall falloff in manufacturing activity, some contended that over the past 10 years, sweatshops have come to represent a larger portion of the remaining operations.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who’s now a professor at Brandeis University, said the increased attention paid to garment contractors over the last eight years has made the sweatshop situation in the U.S. “a bit better,” but he added, “there is still a huge problem.”
“Many manufacturers are working on very quick turnarounds. At the same time, everybody wants the cheapest merchandise possible. We also have an influx of immigrants, many undocumented, looking for work and we have unscrupulous subcontractors who link up with the two groups,” said Reich, during whose tenure the notorious sweatshop in El Monte, Calif., which held 70 Thai immigrants in peonage, was discovered.
“We still don’t have a comprehensive system in the U.S. getting major retailers and major manufacturers to inspect and control their subcontractors in a systematic way. We are inching closer to a system,” Reich said. “Maybe this reflects a little bit of cynicism having [worked on this] issue for so many years, but I don’t think we will get there unless major manufacturers and retailers face stiff liability” for using unscrupulous contractors.
In an industry characterized by razor-thin margins and intense competition at every step of the supply chain, observers said, it’s all but inevitable that people will try to skirt the law if they think it will save a few bucks.
“Why do sweatshops continue to exist? Why do people keep trying to defraud the government by evading taxes?” Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller, asked rhetorically, adding : “They think there is a great economic advantage to it. But there is not a great economic advantage to evading your taxes if you get caught.”
Some observers argued that sweatshops have become more prevalent in the U.S. over the past few years, with their owners seizing the opportunity to take advantage of the waves of new immigrants coming to the U.S.
“In the apparel industry, we’ve seen a new growth of these very small shops in the big cities on the coasts,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “The operations are small and hidden from labor laws and they move constantly. Many of the workers there are working seven days a week for flat rates that can be $200 a week and they work 12 hours a day.”
In the U.S., a sweatshop is defined by the Department of Labor as any factory with more than two violations of labor laws. That can include workers being paid less than the current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour or not being paid a higher rate for overtime, as well as safety violations.
“There is a tremendous lack of compliance with our labor standards in terms of minimum wages and overtime,” claimed Linda Dworak, president of the New York-based Garment Industry Development Corp. “There are also many factories that operate under unsafe conditions. Fire exits are still locked in many factories.”
Dworak said the GIDC believes that sweatshop operators mostly prey on illegal immigrants who are in less of a position to hold their employers accountable to the law.
“In the U.S., the worst conditions are in Los Angeles and New York, and that is where you have a large concentration of immigrant workers,” she continued. “They’re predominantly female and often have limited English, and if they’re undocumented they’re afraid to go to any kind of government enforcement agency.”
Several observers said they believe that labor violations are an almost inevitable by-product of the highly competitive apparel environment.
“As we drive for lower prices every year, it’s just impossible to be able to be completely in compliance with labor standards,” said consultant Andrew Jassin, a partner in New York-based Jassin-O’Rourke Group. “It is driven by the retailers’ constant need to have better margins and more sales. More sales come about through more promotion. We can’t disregard the selling of product at discounts in the stores. That’s a major factor. We need to think about where the product came from and how low they want to negotiate prices.”
Indeed, the power that retailers exert over pricing leads even labor advocates to talk almost sympathetically about the plant managers who are often their adversaries.
“Contractors really have a very weak control over the economics of production,” said Dworak. “Contractors are squeezed and squeezed and end up sometimes having to demand a lot of overtime from their employees.”
A number of sources said that the contractor system, in which factory owners make a profit based on the cost of labor, but exercise little control over their pricing, tends to encourage sweatshops. That problem is exacerbated, they say, by the increasing reliance of retailers on private label merchandise.
“Some of them have codes of conduct, but they take an arm’s-length position. Every guy blames the next guy,” said Jay Mazur, president of UNITE — a descendant of the ILGWU, which rose to power after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire attracted attention to the dangerous conditions inside apparel factories.
Jassin agreed: “If you don’t think about an issue, it’s not an issue. Retailers first and foremost will say they abide by legal standards that are set and try to comply where possible. But because they’re driving prices downward and they have middle people, they may not be as aware — purposely — of where those middle people get their products from. Maybe the retailers take, not a dim view, but an ostrich’s point of view. As long as they get the price, quality and someone signs off on the compliance agreement, they may be happy.”
The issue of whether retailers who sell private label merchandise should be considered manufacturers has become a key one on the labor front in recent years.
It is at the center of a debate in California over a state law passed last year that holds manufacturers and retailers jointly liable for the wages of apparel workers, if the contractors who employed them were unable to pay them. A draft version of regulations for enforcing that law, which may go into effect this spring, upset labor advocates because it exempted retailers.
Regardless of legal liability, labor advocates have taken their message to retailers’ front doors, in an effort to place the blame for the use of sweatshops on a clear consumer target. NikeTown, Gap and Macy’s are just three of the retailers that demonstrators have accused of using sweatshop labor over the past decade.
UNITE’s Mazur said retailers “are major manufacturers, but they are unencumbered. They deny the fact they are manufacturers.”
For their part, retailers insist that they are not manufacturers, but contend that they are taking the sweatshop issue seriously anyway.
“Retailers depend on manufacturers, and manufacturers have done a phenomenal job in addressing problems,” said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations with the National Retail Federation.
However, he strongly disagreed with the claim that retailers don’t want to know what goes on at the plants where they do business. Rather, he contended, as the sweatshop issue has gained prominence, retailers have paid ever-closer attention to the way the goods they sell are being made, by setting and maintaining vendor standards.
“For the retailer, their reputation is on the line,” he said. “They are the name that the consumer sees and because of that, they have to take it seriously. If their reputation is going to be sullied, they will walk away from a factory. If anything, there is more interaction and oversight.”
Retailers and vendors pointed to the industry’s many efforts over the past few years to better manage labor standards at factories around the world — such as the Fair Labor Association, which grew out of a panel convened by the Clinton administration; and the Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production program, founded by the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, now known as the American Apparel and Footwear Association — as proof of their dedication to the issue.
“We are a very competitive industry, but we share a lot of information and best practices in this area,” said Roberta Karp, senior vice president and general counsel at Liz Claiborne, who contended that apparel brands can no longer afford the risk of selling clothing made in sweatshop conditions.
“Our consumer cares very much” about the issue, she said. “They want to feel good about the product. They don’t want to have a reason to feel bad about something.”
While student protests about labor conditions have attracted a lot of attention, not all in the industry believe that concerns about labor issues really affect consumers’ purchasing decisions.
One New York factory that industry sources cite as having high labor standards is the one operated in Chinatown by the Made in New York Group Inc., which produces the Lafayette 148 brand. While walking through the factory, Lafayette 148 president Deirdre Quinn pointed with pride to the six bright, airy, yet bustling, 10,000-square-foot production floors, which also turn out military uniforms and private label garments for high-end retailers.
However, she conceded that having a nice plant and content workers isn’t much of a marketing advantage.
“We label our garments ‘Made in New York City,’ but I don’t think it really makes a difference to the consumer,” Quinn said. “The price has to be right. I’d like to think it makes a difference, but I don’t really believe it.”
The apparel industry is also dealing with a public suspicion that all garment factories are sweatshops. Aileen Dresner, executive vice president of Lafayette 148, said people often ask what the conditions in her factory are really like.
“We’re in Chinatown. The first thing people say is, ‘Is it a sweatshop?’ And then, they give a little chuckle,” she said. “And then, we take them in for a tour.”
A sample room operated by designer Elie Tahari was the target of similar allegations last year, by a landlord who was trying to evict him from his space. In a somewhat unusual move, UNITE stepped in to back Tahari, claiming his shop was clean. The landlord, Chase Manhattan Bank, eventually backed down and sold the building to Tahari, who declined to comment on the issue for this story.
Over the past few years, apparel companies have struggled to explain to the public that the buying power of the dollar can be dramatically higher in other parts of the world.
In 1998, after reports of abusive conditions at some Vietnamese plants, Nike touted the findings of a Dartmouth University study that pointed out that while workers at two Nike-supplying plants earned about $550 a year, that far surpassed the $240 per capita income in that nation at the time.
Similarly, officials from Caribbean Basin nations have been trying to lure more apparel manufacturing jobs to their region. Henry Fransen, executive director of the Honduras Maquiladora Association, pointed out that over the past few years, the number of men working in his country’s garment plants rose from about 5 percent to 28 percent — mainly because the men put their machismo behind them when they realized how much money they could make sewing clothes.
“Women were making more money than the men,” he said.
Many people said they believe that the publicity surrounding the sweatshop issue has helped to improve working conditions in the U.S. and abroad. While they said that the industry can certainly reduce the prevalence of sweatshops, most held little hope that they’ll ever be done away with entirely.
“Retailers don’t want to be caught in a situation where they are getting bad publicity, and they are more and more concerned that the factories they are using are not sweatshops. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think things are changing a bit,” said the GIDC’s Dworak. Still, as to whether she thought the industry would ever be able to put an end to sweatshops, she said “that’s going to be a big challenge.”
Larry Martin, president of the AAFA, said that as the industry continues to globalize, it’s going to become even harder to keep track of labor conditions around the world.
“There are places that are so remote that they probably wouldn’t get found,” he said. “But look, we haven’t wiped out bank robbery, either. People are going to break the law and our job is to prosecute those who do.”