Is your image of a sweatshop a black-and- white photograph of Jewish garment workers marching for labor rights 100 years ago, or the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911, in which hundreds of Jewish workers were trapped inside a burning building in New York (see sidebar)? If so, then you should update it: As of 2003, Los Angeles is leading the nation in sweatshop labor.
A coalition of activists under the title of No More Sweatshops, headed by former state Sen. Tom Hayden, is currently pushing legislation through the Los Angeles City Council, the Los Angeles School Board and the California Legislature to fight the illegal labor practice of sweatshops and to ensure these government bodies do not purchase any items with city or state funds that are produced by sweatshops.
On Sept. 9, the Los Angeles School board will hear advocates testimony on behalf of anti-sweatshop legislation to ensure that no school board funds are used to purchase sweatshop-produced uniforms. Similar hearings with the L.A. City Council and the Legislature are expected to follow in the coming months.
While no one exactly advocates sweatshops, critics of the activists say that legislation might target the only income source of an already vulnerable illegal immigrant community depends on sweatshops for their livelihood and that garment manufacturers would simply move their operations overseas rather than reform. Critics charge that activists should instead work with sweatshops to change their labor practices rather than pass more legislation against them.
Sweatshops in the 1900s were fueled by immigrant labor -- much of it Jewish. Today, immigrant labor still fuels sweatshops; only the immigrants are now primarily Latino and Asian. Today's sweatshops are manufacturing centers in which few if any federal or state labor laws are observed. Laborers often work 16-hour days, seven days a week for far below minimum wage with little or no provisions to ensure their health and safety. Additionally, workers are often subject to physical abuse.
Sweatshops workers are often forced into a type of indentured servitude in order to pay off the people who smuggled them into the United States, often paying off thousands of dollars in debt while making only a few dollars an hour.
"It's a form of slavery that's alive and well," said Anat Tamir, program director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which is a key Jewish player in the No More Sweatshops campaign in Los Angeles. "It's a chain of production that exploits the most vulnerable people, and everyone from subcontractors to CEOs of large corporations are setting the tone for this kind of abuse and exploitation for the sake of profit. It's dehumanization at its worst."
The problem of sweatshops in Los Angeles has reached epidemic proportions. Los Angeles has approximately 140,000 garment laborers who are primarily Latino and Asian undocumented workers. According to U.S. Labor Department studies, only about one-third of L.A. garment factories follow federal and state labor laws that are designed to protect workers. Garment production is Los Angeles is currently a multi-billion dollar business.
The cheap labor that sweatshops provide, however, is part of a system that fills a critical role in the clothing-production process. Garment manufacturers do not usually physically produce the clothes they make. The manufacturers take orders from retailers, design the clothing, market the label and then contract with independent garment factories to make the clothing. These subcontracted companies may use sweatshop labor without the manufacturer's knowledge. All in all, consumers and manufacturers have difficulty ensuring that their clothes are "kosher."
Stan Levy, chair of the Labor and Public Affairs Committee with the California Fashion Association, has been working with manufacturers for 10 years to avoid worker exploitation. Levy pointed to legislation that responsible manufacturers have helped pass in recent years, such as 1999's Assembly Bill 633, which allows workers who have not been paid by the subcontractors to file for payment on wages they did not receive. (This measure's effectiveness is somewhat compromised by the fact that illegal immigrants fear deportation.) However, Levy pointed out that even with these safeguards, abuses can still occur.
"You have people with every good intention in the world who are horrified that workers are being exploited and want to help end the abuse of these people, but you are dealing with a problem that includes complicated cultural and economic issues," Levy explained. "Responsible manufacturers are trying to ensure this abuse does not occur, but we need government to offer better supervision and control."
Arthur Lujan, state labor commissioner, was unavailable for comment, but several people with knowledge of the workings of the commissioner's office said they are not properly staffed or funded to oversee the garment industry.
Levy pointed to two independent monitoring agencies, Cal Safety Compliance Corporation and Apparel Resources, which offer certification that a garment factory is sweatshop free. However, Levy said they are only effective for registered companies.
"There is a whole garment underground," Levy noted. He added that it is unlikely for some subcontractors to stop using sweatshop labor without heavy governmental enforcement.
Richard Appelbaum, co-author of "Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry" (University of California Press, 2000) and a professor at UC Santa Barbara, thinks it is possible to balance profits and fair labor in the industry.
"Labor cost is probably 6 percent of the retail price," Appelbaum said. "Even increasing the wages 50 percent would only subtract marginally from the profits. There's a lot of profit in the industry, and there are significant profit margins. By cutting slightly into those profit margins, manufacturers could ensure a fair environment for workers."
Appelbaum also said he believes that most consumers would be willing to pay slightly more for garments that were not manufactured by sweatshops.
"Just like you pay extra for kosher food or bottled water, people would pay extra to know that their clothes are sweatshop free."
Levy said he thinks Appelbaum's assessment doesn't account for the complexities of garment productions.
"There is what it actually costs to make the product and then what it costs to sell that product in the store," Levy said. "Design, sales, production, advertising -- all of those must come from the price as well. It may cost $5 to make and $50 in the store, but the actual profit the manufacturer makes is $5."
The quick closure of sweatshops is also too simple a solution in Levy's eyes.
"No one wants to see abuse, but if you close down these companies completely, you're going to have a lot of people deported and losing their jobs," Levy said. "You would create a huge crisis in a very vulnerable community, and all the people who are dependent of the workers to support them. And the abuse wouldn't necessarily stop, it would just move overseas. That's part of the anguish of this situation -- as we try to ensure the fair treatment of workers it becomes a very difficult issue in light of the global economy. We need to work with the companies that are here to ensure fair labor practices."
Although the realities of sweatshops are complex, activists still believe than an idealistic approach is needed to solve this problem.
"Seventy-five years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire tragedy, the language of immigrant sweatshop workers has changed from Yiddish to Spanish and Chinese," wrote the PJA and No More Sweatshops in a prepared statement. "But our intimate history as Jews rising from the sweatshops of New York and our strong tradition of social justice work demand that we once again fight egregious sweatshop abuses to protect a new generation of exploited low-wage workers."