State and federal inspectors spoke at the inaugural meeting ofthe Los Angeles Jewish Commission on Sweatshops. Photo bySlobodan Dimitrov
You could understand why the guys along the wall were concerned.There they sat, stone-faced and straightbacked, in the room's bestsuits, looking less like successful manufacturers, creators offashion trends, jobs and philanthropic endeavors, and more like kidscalled to meet the principal.
They had come to listen to the first meeting of a new group calledthe Los Angeles Jewish Commission on Sweatshops. The offspring of aleft-leaning coalition of Jewish groups and spearheaded by theAmerican Jewish Congress, the commission has set out to examineconditions in Los Angeles' garment industry and suggest possibleactions for the Jewish community to follow.
Lest anyone wonder what business this is of the Jewish community,Rabbi Leonard Beerman opened the proceeding with a moving invocationof Jewish social responsibility and a quote from his teacher, RabbiAbraham Joshua Heschel: "Morally speaking, there is no limit ofconcern we must have for our fellow human beings."
Though none of the speakers raised the point at the Sept. 12meeting at Temple Beth Am, the history of Jewish social activism isas tied up with the history of garment workers' rights as it is withcivil rights.
And it is no coincidence that the growth of Los Angeles' $15.2billion-per-year garment industry parallels the expansion of Jewishwealth and philanthropy here, from the earliest Jewish dry goodmerchants to the founders, movers and shakers of the downtown fashiondistrict. To reveal, as a 1992 study did, that 23 percent of alllocal garment manufacturers are Jewish is to only hint at theinfluence and importance of this percentage.
So while the manufacturers stood sentinel over their interest andreputations, and while -- across town at the Shubert -- Emma Goldmanin the musical "Ragtime" appealed to turn-of-the-century Jewishgarment workers to rise up and strike, the newest incarnation of whatmay be yet another battleground for intra-Jewish struggle in LosAngeles got underway.
This session belonged to four inspectors from the state andfederal government. Armed with studies and field experience, theyrevealed some sobering statistics:
Two-thirds of all Department of Labor investigations of contractors find violations.
Half of all contractors examined in a 1996 study violate Federal minimum wage and overtime laws.
An Aug. 25 garment sweep of 46 contractors found 44 serious violations -- locked doors, no machine guards -- at 25 shops.
For one, it's not clear where ultimate responsibility lies.Manufacturers such as Guess? label, market and distribute clothes toretailers, such as Macy's. But manufacturers don't make the clothes.A web of contractors, sub-contractors and sometimes home-workers dothe cutting and sewing, and it is on these levels the violations takeplace. While manufacturers are legally responsible for the conditionsunder which their clothes are produced, enforcement and detectionare, to say the least, challenging.
Deep in the Clintonian era of private-public cooperation, none ofthe government investigators seems eager to utter the words"crackdown" or even "sweatshop." The latter, they reminded thenumerous media representatives present, is a word the media uses."The question is how do you raise the level of compliance withoutdriving contractors out of state," said the California LaborCommisssion's Jose Millan.
The manufacturers, who sat silent in their metaphorical docketFriday, including Armand and Maurice Marciano of Guess?, IlseMetchek, director of the California Fashion Association, and apparelindustry attorney Stanley W. Levy, will have their say before thecommission in Novermber. Garment workers will be called to testify ata public meeting on Oct. 27.
"I think we set a tone for seriousness," said the AJCongress'David Waskow. "We're going to be exploring these issues in depth."