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Sweatshop Charges Put a Wrinkle in Consumerism : Labor: Many shoppers and industry insiders say they would now consider factors such as treatment of workers in making a purchase or business decision.

August 24, 1995|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The makers and consumers of fashion have all heard the news.

Illegal immigrants discovered this month at an alleged El Monte sweatshop told authorities that they were forced to cut and sew clothing in slave-like conditions for 69 an hour. Major department stores allegedly stocked garments made there.

The fallout is being felt in the courts; in the state Department of Industrial Relations, which has initiated an investigation into garment manufacturing practices, and in the way we shop for and think about clothes.

A simple denim miniskirt that costs less than $10 to make, for example, might sell for $35 or $19, depending on how and where it is manufactured and sold. An informal survey of shoppers and fashion industry insiders suggests that many would now consider those factors, as well as the treatment of workers, in weighing a purchase or business decision. Here is a sampling of their comments.

JILL BOOCOCK, employee benefits consultant and mother, Fountain Valley:

"When I heard that some of the clothing was going to some of the stores I shop at, it made me wonder if the stores knew about all this. It would affect where I buy my clothes if I knew. You're always looking for bargains, but if I knew specifically, I wouldn't buy them. But it's really hard to know."

ANGELA CASTILLO, receptionist, Chicana Service Center in Downtown Los Angeles:

"I'd buy the cheaper skirt. I need money. If I knew the people who made it were treated badly, maybe I wouldn't buy the skirt at all. But I definitely wouldn't buy the higher-priced version. If I really loved the way it looked on me, I might go ahead and buy the lower-priced one anyway. But I wouldn't feel good about it."

CAROLE LITTLE, co-founder and designer of Carole Little Inc., Los Angeles:

"I must admit that normally I don't think about the labor first when I look at a skirt or dress. I think of the design. I have an advantage. I can look at almost any garment short of Chanel, certainly any domestic garment, and I know approximately what the manufacturer paid for the fabric, what the cost of labor should be, and how much of a profit they are probably making on it.

"I would never have thought of these [alleged sweatshops] as being a problem of department stores. I thought it would be merchandise made for the less expensive stores. At our place, we control [the manufacturing process] and have very stringent rules. We are constantly aware and make every effort to oversee every inch of the [production of the clothes]. I don't know if anyone can control anything totally in this world. . . . I guess that's obvious."

SARA SCHIFRIN, owner of Sara, a retail shop in Santa Monica:

"As a retailer, I don't always know where things are made. If they are made in the U.S., I always assume they are OK. I never considered that they might be from a sweatshop. . . .

"But how do you really ever know? I don't even meet most people who make the lines I buy. I shop from a manufacturer's representative who has a showroom in the [California] Mart and sells to me at wholesale level. That's why I don't think the blame should be passed on to the retailer. I think it belongs with people who manufacture the clothes. They should know where their garments are made. If they don't, they should ask."

CRISTINA VAZQUEZ, political and education director for UNITE, the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees, Los Angeles:

"The first thing I look for is a union label. It tells me the workers earned a decent wage and had medical insurance. I've trained my whole family to do this. If we can't find that, we try for a garment made in America. Of course right now, everyone's concerned about the sweatshops right here in L.A.

"It's hard to get down to the truth of where a product comes from. . . . We should be able to go to a store and feel confident that nothing there has been made by mistreated workers. . . . It's the retailer's responsibility to make sure that everything sold is made with fair labor practices. They have ways of finding out, though they say they don't."

GRACIELA CEJA, garment factory worker, Downtown Los Angeles:

"I don't go to stores. I go to the swap meet in San Fernando, where I buy used clothes for about $1.50 for each piece. I make blouses from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day in a very small, very hot place. Most weeks I make about $80. We don't have a place to eat, like a lunchroom, or a place to relax. We sit on the floor. We don't have medical insurance. All we have is pressure."

LYNDA JOHNSON, office supplies sales associate, Los Angeles:

"This whole [alleged sweatshop case] has made me stop and think about what I'm buying. I don't normally think about things like that when I shop for clothes. If I knew this skirt was made by people sacrificed like those women, I wouldn't buy it. I'd feel too guilty."

PAUL LEE, organizer for Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, Los Angeles:

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