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The Still-Tattered Fabric of the Apparel Industry : Firms, government and public must ensure job safety

May 09, 1996

Asurvey of 76 sewing contractors in Southern California has turned up serious health and safety problems on the shop floor. Nearly 75% of the shops failed to meet government standards.

This is not the first time the contractors in this important Southern California industry have failed to pass the test of reasonable and sensible workplace conditions. The industry's self-regulatory measures have shown progress, but not enough. More pressure is needed to clean up malpractices and make the business a safe one for employees.

Some of the problems cited in the survey by state and federal regulators were blocked exits, exposed and dangerous electrical wiring and the absence of safety guards on sewing and cutting equipment. These and other hazards constitute what the report called a "substantial probability of death or serious physical harm."

The safety hazards were not the only problems uncovered in the report by Cal/OSHA and state and federal labor agencies. It said that 43% of the Southern California firms surveyed violated minimum wage requirements and 55% failed to meet overtime pay standards. As dismal as those figures are, authorities say they represent an improvement from a similar inspection two years ago; then, 61% violated the minimum wage law and 78% the overtime pay requirements.

A manufacturers group, the Los Angeles-based California Fashion Assn., cites the improvement as proof that the self-regulatory system put in place by owners less than one year ago has succeeded. "I think we are doing an outstanding job," said Ilse Metchek, an official of the trade group.

A better job, but hardly outstanding. How can it be judged a success to have almost half of the surveyed shops paying less than the minimum wage and even more failing to pay earned overtime?

Progress has been made, but from an abysmal base point. The clothing business is highly competitive and margins are tight, but the industry nonetheless must pay a fair wage and provide a safe workplace. The industry should also demand that the many small contracting shops whose workers sew and supply the materials for the apparel makers deal ethically with employees.

This industry, vital for the jobs, profits and tax revenues it provides, employs well over 100,000 workers in Los Angeles and Orange counties. State and federal regulators must supplement the industry's own efforts to provide a fair deal to the workers. Only in this way can the industry survive in the long run.

Consumers can also play an important role by refusing to buy at stores whose clothes carry labels from proven violators of ethical and legal standards. A concerned public can make a difference.

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