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Panel OKs Liability Bill for Clothing Makers


SACRAMENTO — Propelled by discovery of slave-like conditions at an El Monte sweatshop, a state Senate committee narrowly approved a bill Wednesday to hold garment manufacturers liable for labor law violations of their sewing contractors.

The organized labor-sponsored bill by state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) cleared the Industrial Relations Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote and went to the Appropriations Committee for a second hearing.

Democrats favored the bill (SB 399) as a remedy for an industry that they charged has a long history of abusing workers, especially immigrant and minority women. Republicans charged that it would subject law-abiding businesses to civil penalties for violations they had no knowledge of or control over.

Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a similar bill last year, warning that imposing liability on manufacturers for labor law violations of their contractors "would only drive the garment industry out of the state."

Paul Kranhold, Wilson's press secretary, said Wednesday that the governor's position remains the same. "Nothing has changed," he said.

Solis conceded that she faces an uphill battle in persuading Wilson to sign the bill. The measure needs approval by the Senate and Assembly.

But she said she hoped that public pressure generated by the Aug. 3 raid on the El Monte sewing factory and subsequent raids on other sewing shops would force Wilson to reconsider.

Wilson has criticized the federal government for failing to act sooner to shut down the El Monte plant, at which 72 Thai nationals allegedly labored in prison-like conditions to pay off their transportation costs from Thailand. They allegedly worked 18-hour days for years at rates far below minimum wage.

Solis, the committee's chairwoman, said that "self-policing of the [garment] industry hasn't worked" and that state and federal budget cuts have crippled regulators' ability to act against violators.

Solis argued that holding clothing manufacturers and their contractors liable for minimum wage, overtime and health and safety violations would provide a strong economic incentive for the industry to obey the law.

The law now can impose liability on manufacturers for labor law violations when their contractors are not registered with the state. The Solis bill would extend the liability to manufacturers when the violations were committed by registered contractors.

But state Sen. Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia) protested that the bill was too broad. He said it would apply unfairly to reputable retailers.

Solis argued that in the quest to cut costs and earn profits, garment makers are "intricately involved."

"This bill goes after the people who are not obeying the law," she said. "I'm not trying to bang on the people who are following the law."

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