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Sweatshop Exhibit Gives Voice to Abuse

April 19, 1998|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The scene is haunting: A 12-foot fence crowned with razor wire bracketing two sides of a square large enough for two outdated sewing machines set on two tiny tables. On one open side of this cage-like setting is a reproduction of a letter, a desperate plea from a worker begging for freedom.

"I want to go home. . . . I give you my word as an honest person, I won't cause trouble for you. . . . Have mercy on poor people who are working . . . for [their] destitute families in Thailand."

This re-creation of the slave-like conditions discovered in 1995 at an El Monte sweatshop is the centerpiece of the Smithsonian Institution's exhibition "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820-Present." The display opens Wednesday.

Images from the early part of the century are also disturbing: a pre-adolescent Italian boy bent under the weight of a huge bundle of fabric; five young women, one with a glazed look, another with a feeble smile, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder as they hand-stitch garments at a narrow table; a bearded Jewish man, shoulders hunched, trimming a coat in a dreary New York tenement.

The exhibit has split the garment industry. Many manufacturers oppose it as unduly negative. But a number of retailers and government labor agencies believe it's accomplishing a worthwhile objective: teaching the public about the rising demand for apparel and the growth of immigration--human and economic forces that have been factors in the exploitative conditions of the past.

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All agree, however, that history's lessons have gone unheeded. Despite stepped-up enforcement efforts by regulators, sweatshops are rampant, particularly in California, where, in the final quarter of 1997, the Labor Department uncovered 36 wage violations and secured compensation for more than 500 underpaid workers.

"Sweatshops should not be a part of our present and sweatshops should not be a part of our future," says Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. "This project, which will also be a traveling exhibit, will remind consumers that their spending power can influence the apparel and retailing industries. Hopefully, the exhibit will mobilize consumers to use that power."

The exhibit will be on display in Washington through October, then travel to museums in garment centers throughout the country. It will come to Southern California, the nation's leading producer of apparel, in November or December. After that, it will go to San Francisco, the Midwest and New York.

The most gripping part of the exhibit is the re-creation of the El Monte sweatshop uncovered in an August 1995 police raid. The display includes a forged passport (a sample of the type of documents a criminal ring used to smuggle more than 70 fellow Thai nationals into the United States) and an indentured servant's agreement to repay in labor $5,000 in travel and other expenses.

There is also a bundle of cut fabric, a packet of beans, a box of cough syrup and unwrapped packages of soap and toothpaste, items from a makeshift store in the garage of the apartment complex where the enslaved workers lived. (The workers' wages were apparently docked when they bought food and sundries at the store.)

The exhibit includes samples of the clothing the workers produced--a boy's shirt embroidered with a cartoon character, a pair of athletic shorts, a pink blouse.

Police and state labor investigators collected the items after the raid. A letter from the boyfriend of a worker who escaped and led authorities to the site is encased in a panel at the exhibit. The letter includes a hand-drawn map of the apartment complex.

"Please be careful," it says. "This apartment very dangerous. . . . Please bring much manpower."

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Finally, there is a courtroom drawing of eight Thai nationals (at least two were never captured) who imprisoned the workers. The eight were sentenced in 1996 on slavery and smuggling charges.

The exhibit, which chronicles labor history, also brings the horrors of sweatshops to life. But industry observers say apparel producers, retailers and regulators still have work to do.

El Monte escaped scrutiny for at least seven years partly because the operation was never registered with state regulators.

Even today, many retailers continue to deal with apparel contractors they know are unregistered, says Ilse Metchek, director of the California Fashion Assn., a Los Angeles-based group that represents apparel manufacturers.

"We've seen some of these transactions," she says. "We've seen them deliver orders to unregistered contractors and we've seen the deliveries."

The exhibit highlights other practices that persist, such as unusually long workdays. The extreme example is in the El Monte exhibit. A text panel notes that the 72 workers labored 18 to 22 hours a day and were paid 59 cents an hour--money they never actually received.

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