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CITYSCAPES / JOHN M. GLIONNA

Jewish Sweatshop Panel Stirs Debate in Garment Industry

September 13, 1997|JOHN M. GLIONNA

Leonard Beerman knows how sweatshop abuses strike a deep nerve in the Jewish community for two conflicting reasons.

Many American Jews are descendants of immigrants who worked in unregulated garment factories generations ago, and they are sympathetic to the plight of present-day apparel workers.

But Jewish entrepreneurs are now a major force in the industry--often as manufacturers who profit from substandard conditions in makeshift operations that are contracted to make the clothes.

Beerman, a retired Westside rabbi, embodies that conflict: His grandfather was a tailor who earned $16 a week for a company that made men's suits, while his father sold women's dresses.

The dichotomy weighs on Beerman's mind as he co-chairs the Los Angeles Jewish Commission on Sweatshops, which held its first meeting Friday at a Los Angeles temple, questioning government regulators in an attempt to "capture the conscience" of the Jewish community on this touchy issue.

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"There is a long historical connection between Jews and the garment industry, on both sides of the coin," said the 76-year-old Beerman. "So why are we looking into this industry? I don't think there's so much a feeling

of guilt in the Jewish community as one of responsibility about the behavior of Jews among Jews.

"But to have a Jewish commission on sweatshops is a red flag to anyone in the garment industry, not only Jews."

Still, studies show that Jewish manufacturers reap a large portion of the profits in a local garment industry that makes $16 billion annually.

A 1992 study, for example, found that 23% of all local garment manufacturers are Jewish. But of the 200 manufacturers whose annual sales exceed $10 million, Jewish-owned firms account for 56% of the combined sales, according to Richard P. Appelbaum, a sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara and director of the Institute for Social Behavioral and Economic Research, who was a member of the panel.

Commission Co-Chairwoman Carol Levy, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, which created the panel, told the gathering of stone-faced manufacturers and other members of the local garment trade that the panel's interest was merely to establish fact.

"We're not here to point fingers or lay blame," she said. "But we do have a point of view, and that is there is a problem within the industry."

Earlier, Levy acknowledged that news of the commission's formation had brought a flurry of defensive faxes and calls from members of the fashion industry and their lawyers, who feel that they are already under attack from government regulators.

"We're 10 or 12 people, mostly rabbis, talking to three government officials and, still, the phone calls and faxes from fashion industry and their lawyers haven't stopped in days. It's amazing," she said with a laugh. "We must be very powerful."

To the contrary, fashion industry insiders were less than impressed with the panel's lack of sophistication. They were critical of what they called several naive questions by commission members, including one asking what a sweatshop was.

"You have many Jewish leaders in the community who know quite a lot about this industry and none of them are on this panel," said Stanley W. Levy, an attorney representing the apparel industry. "We don't think the commission is as broad-based as it needs to be."

Appelbaum said the industry was running scared from any light shone on its practices. "The fashion industry is extremely sensitive, and to me that is nothing short of incredible," he said.

During the two-hour meeting, the panel heard a wide range of frustrations from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Labor and Cal/OSHA as they struggle to keep tabs on a fractured industry that employs more than 160,000 local workers, many of them undocumented immigrants.

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Levy has little doubt that the concept of boycotting sweatshop-made goods would be embraced by the Jewish community.

"The issue of garment-making has such resonance for Jews today. For many, such jobs were a point of entry into this country," she said.

"And so Jews know instinctively what it means to be an oppressed laborer in such factories today. Even though they might not have a relative who worked under these conditions, there is a cousin or a friend or a neighbor."

Rabbi Beerman said his religion moves him to try to do something about deplorable working conditions wherever he finds them. "What moves me to bring out some of these facts to the community is a sensitivity to injustice," he said.

"And that's one thing shared by all Jews."

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