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Garment Makers' Compliance With Labor Laws Slips in L.A.

Manufacturing: Two-thirds of firms inspected had violations this year, an increase since last survey in 1998. Some blame self-policing.

September 21, 2000|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Self-monitoring by garment manufacturers--once touted by the Department of Labor as a low-cost way of cleaning up the industry--has done little to reduce wage and hour violations, especially in Los Angeles, according to recent state and federal investigations.

Only one-third of the clothing makers inspected in Los Angeles this year were in compliance with federal and state labor laws, a slightly poorer showing than the 39% of two years ago.

Compliance rates in the region nearly doubled--from 22% to 39%--in 1996, after a series of labor scandals led to greater government intervention. But the rates have stagnated since then.

"We've been very disappointed that we haven't seen a continuing improvement, especially considering the tremendous investment we've made," said John Fraser, deputy administrator for the DOL's Wage and Hour Division. "But we're not giving up."

State and federal labor officials have relied primarily on voluntary self-policing by the industry. A cornerstone of that policy is the hiring of private monitors by manufacturers. About 70% of Southern California garment makers contacted in a recent federal survey paid for such a monitoring service.

Manufacturers rarely hire their own employees to cut and sew clothing. Instead, most pay contractors to do the job.

Critics charge that manufacturers often hire monitoring companies to shield themselves from responsibility, yet continue to set their rates so low that contractors must cheat workers or go out of business.

The system's weaknesses became apparent in the case of three Los Angeles workers who were fired after they reported chronic violations to a monitor hired by John Paul Richard Inc., which designs women's clothing for department stores. The workers said they were paid about $3 an hour, about half the state minimum wage, and often worked seven-day weeks with no overtime.

"We thought the inspector was from the government," said Samuel Guerra, one of the fired workers, who ironed hundreds of jackets, skirts and blouses a day. "We thought that talking to him would help us. Instead, all it did was get us fired."

Through the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the workers sued Calabasas-based John Paul Richard and two other manufacturers--Francine Browner Inc. and BCBG/Max Azria Inc.--claiming they ignored warnings from their own monitors. One report from the Cal Safety Compliance Corp. to JPR stated, "Employees reported receiving less than minimum wage" and "Back wages and fines could occur if a labor department investigation would occur."

Attorneys announced Wednesday that the case was settled out of court for $134,000. "This case shows that private monitoring is fundamentally ineffective," said attorney Julia Figueira-McDonough of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which assisted in the case.

Jeffrey Kapor, an attorney for John Paul Richard, said the settlement was a "business decision" and the company "does not think it did anything wrong." He said it would have been more costly to fight the case in court than to settle. "They were never cited by the federal government or the state government."

The federal survey, which is conducted every two years, showed a higher rate of compliance in companies that used monitors (44%) than in those that did not (11%). But attorneys, industry spokesmen and government officials said even the higher rate was alarmingly low.

"Monitoring by itself doesn't solve the problem," said Fraser of the Labor Department. "We're looking at new things. We're continuously trying to evolve our enforcement strategy."

For example, he said, the Labor Department next year will begin escalating penalties for garment makers who violate the law, including the use of criminal sanctions.

"The bottom line in all of these approaches is that we're trying to raise the stakes," he said.

Ilse Metchek, director of the California Fashion Assn., directed much of the blame at the Labor Department. "There is no communication. There is no education.

"Monitoring works," Metchek said. "It's just that the implementation still needs to be worked on."

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