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COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

Instead of 187: Enforcement of Labor Laws : Adequate funding for employer inspections could solve the illegal immigration problem.

November 20, 1994|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a former national correspondent for The Times

Back to reality. In this case, the ratty office of the state labor commissioner in Downtown Los Angeles, where a broken computer sits forlornly on one corner of a scarred desk.

There, the valiant King Cheung, a truly dedicated civil servant, assembles his army of three, himself included, to enforce the labor codes for all manufacturing and agricultural enterprises in Los Angeles County. He's blessed. Orange County doesn't even have an inspection staff and is covered instead by the Labor Department's solitary representative in San Diego. For the entire state, on a good day, there are only 16 inspectors to enforce the labor laws.

What this means is that the only program with any real promise of cutting down the incessant demand for cheap immigrant labor barely exists. Jobs are the magnet that pull people to this country, and if employers continue to get away with violating our labor standards, then the migrants will keep coming, no matter how many propositions the voters pass.

The state of California has long had the authority, constitutionally sanctioned, to ensure that everyone who works is covered by workers' compensation and paid the minimum wage as well as time and a half for overtime and that accurate records, including tax deductions and proof of legal right to work, are maintained. Additionally, working conditions must meet Cal-OSHA standards as well as local health and fire-safety rules.

Enforce all that, and you go a long way to answering the question of whether undocumented workers compete unfairly for jobs that others might take. But the Labor Department recognizes that even on a rare good day, when state agencies and the feds are fully cooperative, most labor activity in this state goes unregulated.

Thursday was a good day, but a single building in Downtown Los Angeles absorbed much of the statewide effort. The target was the regal old May Co. department store on Broadway, now transformed into a rabbit warren of garment manufacturers, including some who cheat on the $4.25-an-hour minimum wage. The stately escalators are now still, workers are transported by freight elevators and the bathrooms are filthy, but thousands of dresses and sports outfits, many quite expensive and proudly bearing the label "Made in America" are produced here. But "Made in America" hardly translates into proud workers earning a living wage.

The L.A. garment industry now leads the nation and is the city's major manufacturing employer. But, as in agriculture, the state's most prosperous activity, working conditions are Third World. Inspectors found that some of the Chinese, Mexican and Vietnamese workers, paid on a piecework basis, were earning $2 and $3 an hour, worked 50-hour weeks without overtime and were not covered by workers' compensation.

This rank exploitation is not restricted to labor in the inner cities. Later that day, a much smaller crew was inspecting sweatshops in a series of one-story buildings in Cerritos. From the outside, this looked like just another high-tech industrial park, complete with fountains. Inside, the dank working conditions were no different than in Downtown Los Angeles.

Indeed, in one crowded bunker, with bins of clothes clogging the aisles, workers were locked in, unable to flee in the event of a fire. In another, there were exposed electrical wires and the sewing machines were not grounded--clear violation of county codes. But no one in authority in Los Angeles County, which voted for the dubious Proposition 187, seemed to care.

Enforcement of existing labor and occupational-safety laws is the best way to deal with illegal immigration, because it is constitutional, cost-effective and goes to the heart of the problem. But the limited resources that the governor has allocated to the Labor Department and other agencies render enforcement a joke.

Let's get serious about the one approach to dealing with illegal immigration that works. The governor should put money into this program. He should also use his bully pulpit to demand that federal and county agencies get serious about enforcing the labor and occupational laws that fall under their jurisdiction. But he won't do this unless pushed by the voters, because it means solving the immigration mess by going after his supporters, the growers and manufacturers who shamefully exploit this cheap labor source.

OK, voters, you've had your fun venting rage while traumatizing schoolchildren. Now get serious and turn on the true culprits: employers out to make a fast buck off vulnerable undocumented labor and politicians--beginning with the governor on down to county supervisors--who only play at enforcing the law.

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