Everyone knows that garment contractors compete in a grimy, cutthroat industry. They're under the thumb of clothing manufacturers, undercut by underground rivals and routinely fined by labor agents. And yet their numbers keep swelling in Orange County.
The number of registered sewing operations in the county shot up to 526 last year from 409 in 1994 and 320 in 1990. That's twice the growth rate for the state, home to an estimated 5,000 contractors. (That doesn't include the unregistered shops. As a rule of thumb, there's one underground contractor for every three legitimate ones.)
Indeed, the textile and apparel industry is the only manufacturing sector in the county that has shown any significant growth in the '90s. Orange County labor analyst Ellie Jordan says 12,900 people worked in this industry last year, compared to 9,400 at the start of the decade.
Why the huge increase in Orange County? For one, experts say, it reflects the area's fast-growing immigrant communities. Despite all the pressures, garment contracting still appeals to many newcomers because it's a relatively low-cost, quick way to get into business.
The county's sewing shops are concentrated in Santa Ana, Little Saigon and Garden Grove, but they're popping up even in high-tech areas. Irvine, for example, had just two registered contractors in 1990, but now has nine, with another half-dozen waiting for their registration papers.
Others think that Orange County's garment trade is burgeoning because contractors in Los Angeles are moving here to flee the competition as well as increased scrutiny from labor investigators.
Moreover, as government agents continue to crack down on unregistered contractors, more sewing shops are taking the step to get that license. Says Jose Millan, the state's interim labor commissioner: "I think that awareness has really sunk in."
on Lee covers workplace issues for The Times. He can be reached at (714) 966-7407 and at email@example.com.