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Forever 21 Files Defamation Suit Against Groups

Retail: Owners say they were unfairly targeted, two days after a judge rejects labor claims.

March 07, 2002|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hip clothing retailer Forever 21 filed a defamation lawsuit against several anti-sweatshop groups Wednesday, claiming they unfairly targeted the label in a "vicious" public campaign.

The suit came two days after U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real dismissed a claim for back pay and damages filed on behalf of 19 workers, who said they sewed Forever 21 clothing at various Los Angeles factories. The retailer argued in its motion for dismissal that it had no control over wages and conditions because the workers were employed by subcontractors. Attorneys for the workers said they would appeal.

Based largely on the workers' claims, made public last September, several advocacy groups in Los Angeles took on Forever 21 as a symbol of problems in the garment industry. The workers said they routinely were paid less than the minimum wage and denied overtime premiums, and had to work in filthy factories infested with rats and cockroaches.

Although not addressing the complaints, Forever 21 owners Do Won and Jin Sook Chang said they did not employ the workers. They said they buy clothing through vendors and contractors, and were removed from the workers.

"The fact is that Forever 21 was in no position to have any impact on their working conditions," said attorney Robin D. Dal Soglio of Latham & Watkins. "Its owners are truly decent, good people, very philanthropic, involved in their church ... To have them be associated with sweatshop conditions is just so upsetting." Dal Soglio said the owners are seeking a public apology and an injunction to stop further activity.

Groups named in the defamation suit include the Garment Worker Center and the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Both have organized pickets outside Forever 21 stores and the owners' Beverly Hills home, and maintained Web sites outlining worker complaints.

Kimi Lee, director of the worker center, said Forever 21 was targeted because of a high number of complaints associated with the label. "We got so many workers from different factories in a short period of time. In four to five months, about 20 workers came to us from six different factories," Lee said.

She said the use of contractors and subcontractors is common in the garment industry, and that brand-name manufacturers and retailers are taking steps to monitor working conditions in factories.

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Retailers such as Forever 21 "exert substantial control over the economic relationships and employment conditions in the garment industry," Lee said. "They could have ensured that the factories where their labels were being sewed into clothing were in compliance with labor laws."

A Forever 21 vendor, also named in the original complaint, settled with the workers, providing some back wages and agreeing to undergo training in labor laws.

The public campaign severely impacted Forever 21's image and hurt sales during the crucial holiday season, Dal Soglio said. She said the dismissal shows Forever 21's owners were right. "We've now been vindicated," Dal Soglio said. "It's time to clear our name."

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