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Guess Linked to Problem Contractors

Workplace: Labor Department says two other apparel makers also use contractors that violate wage laws.

March 04, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN and GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Reflecting the pervasiveness of workplace abuses in the garment industry, a new government report links three major clothing manufacturers previously lauded by federal regulators to law-breaking contractors.

Labor Department officials, in a quarterly enforcement report set for release today, say inspections conducted late last year turned up minimum wage and overtime pay violations at contractors doing production work for the three manufacturers.

The worst violations came at sewing contractors for the controversial Los Angeles-based jeans maker Guess Inc.

Those violations, some details of which were reported previously, prompted the Labor Department in November to put Guess on probation with its "Trendsetter List." The list, initiated in November 1995, is made up of clothing companies that have promised to take extra steps to avoid doing business with sweatshops.

Two other Trendsetter List clothing manufacturers also were cited in the government's new enforcement report: Jerell Inc. of Dallas and the David Brooks-Robert Scott companies in Dedham, Mass.

A Labor Department spokesman said those firms, unlike Guess, were not being put on probation with the Trendsetter List because of the quick action they were taking to correct the problems and the lesser extent of violations by their contractors.

Guess, on the other hand, is a major customer of the contractor where the most extensive problems were found during the last three months of 1996: Pride Jeans Inc. of Vernon.

Pride executives could not be reached for comment, but Labor Department officials said the contractor was found to have illegally underpaid 146 current and former employees a total of $101,300.

The source of the problem, officials said, was that Pride paid workers on a piece-rate basis regardless of whether they worked 40 hours or more in a week. Consequently, inspectors found, the firm often paid workers less than the mandatory time and one-half wages when they worked more than 40 hours in a given week.

Pride agreed to pay the workers the entire amount in back wages they were owed, the agency said.

A Guess lawyer, Glenn Weinman, declined to comment on the government's enforcement report other than to say that the problems at the Guess contractors "are old cases that have been resolved."

But others said the Labor Department's enforcement report reflected widespread problems in the agency's approach to cracking down on sweatshop abuses. They noted that Guess, after running into problems with the Labor Department in the early 1990s, signed a ground-breaking agreement with the agency promising to police its contractors' workplace practices by hiring firms to monitor them.

The new report "shows that, notwithstanding six years of government effort to bring Guess into line, they're still doing things the wrong way," said Steve Nutter, Western regional director of the main garment industry union, UNITE.

Nutter, whose union currently is mounting a campaign to represent Guess workers, called the company's workplace monitoring program "the fox guarding the henhouse," and said the company isn't truly committed to eliminating workplace abuses by its contractors.

Along with citing the shortcomings of monitoring programs such as Guess' that have been encouraged by the Labor Department, industry leaders said the agency has released information about law-breaking contractors too slowly.

"It's difficult for us to take action when the case has been closed and the contractor has paid a fine or back wages," said Pam Rucker, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, a trade group. "By the time we get the report, a violation is at least three months old. If we received sufficient information in a timely fashion, we could go to the manufacturer or contractor and ask the tough questions and take action."

Manufacturers said they need more information from federal labor officials. Some manufacturers and contractors violate labor requirements, such as overtime standards, because labor laws are complex, said Allison Wolf, a spokeswoman for the American Assn. of Apparel Manufacturers.

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