NEW YORK — Workers and state investigators testifying at a public hearing here urged New York State Sen. Franz S. Leichter of Manhattan to push through his proposed legislation for stricter penalties for sweatshop conditions — particularly the withholding of wages — in apparel manufacturing.
The witnesses also spoke of blocked fire escapes, overcrowded facilities and other hazards.
Organized by Leichter, Assemblyman Frank J. Barbaro of Brooklyn and labor committee chairwoman Catherine T. Nolan of Queens, the three-hour session, held Friday, also included testimony from lobbyists and state officials. Barbaro and Nolan were unable to attend.
Leichter and Barbaro have introduced bills in the New York State legislature that, if approved, would:
- Make it a felony to not pay wages due to workers.
- Increase fines substantially for failure to pay wages — from 25 percent of the wages due currently to twice the total amount.
- Make apparel manufacturers liable for their contractors’ failure to pay wages.
- Permit state investigators to confiscate garments if the contractor is unregistered and has three previous violations.
Geri Reilly, counsel to the state assembly labor committee, said the committee group would take the proposed legislation under consideration this week. She said she strongly supported Leichter’s proposals.
Speaking with the help of interpreters, eight men and women — including Asians and Hispanics — described unventilated facilities and toddlers playing with machinery. Most said unsafe and unsanitary conditions are routine in much of the apparel industry.
Several said employers often withhold wages, violate child labor laws and threaten deportation. Most said wages were well below minimum wage, and unemployment and workers’ compensation insurance were never paid.
New York State Commissioner of Labor John F. Hudacs warned that fatal fires such as the well-known Triangle Shirt Waist Factory blaze in 1911 could still happen at numerous locations around the city. Of the approximately 6,000 garment industry employers in the state, he estimated 2,000 to 3,000 run illegal sweatshops.
In 1993, the state’s 27 investigators inspected 1,300 locations and issued 700 fines amounting to roughly $674,000, he said. In terms of unpaid wages, the apparel industry task force collected $343,750 for 997 employees who worked in 288 locations, he said.
In the last five months, the task force conducted 570 investigations, discovering more than $230,000 in unpaid wages. There is enough manpower to visit only 25 percent of the sweatshops, according to Hudacs.
Hudacs said task force inspectors need more legal authority. Currently, they can enter any garment manufacturing establishments in the state to determine whether the state’s labor laws are being complied with. Because the labor department has no legal authority to close down sweatshops, Hudacs urged Leichter to include in his legislation provisions that obstruct production.
He suggested giving state investigators a “hot goods” provisions similar to the one in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows the confiscation of manufactured goods if wages are underpaid or withheld.
Hudacs criticized garment contractors for lowering bids at the expense and safety of their employees.
“We really need manufacturers to be more responsible to insure their goods are produced in compliance with the law,” said Thomas Glubiak, chief labor standards investigator. “Too often they say, ‘Here’s the fabric, and I want you to make [the garment] for $8 and I don’t care how you do it.’ They’ll do it at the expense of their employees. The apparel wholesalers have a shared moral responsibility with the manufacturers.”
Leichter also suggested mandating that every garment manufactured in the state must have a label to certify it was made in a legal establishment. Hudacs said that would force retailers to purchase goods manufactured in registered and safe shops.
“We need to find a way to hold the retail outlets and the public accountable,” Hudacs said.
Glubiak said violation of child labor laws is rampant in the summer. During the school year, children often work after school and through the night, he said. Poverty and the lack of day care forces some employees to take children to work with them, Glubiak said. The exact number of violations is unknown, since children often run out of their workplaces when state investigators enter the premises, he said.
Assistant New York State Attorney General Jane Lauer Barker said it is difficult to prosecute criminals under the current labor laws. Holding manufacturers accountable for contractors’ violations, seizing “hot goods” and obtaining more background information about contractors before they set up shop would decrease the number of violators, she said.
“Clearly, we need to make more people aware of how widespread this problem is in the city and how limited the task force is in terms of tools and resources,” Leichter said after the meeting. “The problem of workers not being paid is an absolute disgrace.”