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Garment industry wary of new rules

Employers and employee advocates in L.A. County's $33-billion trade say the measures could hurt.

August 11, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

If the federal government follows through with its planned crackdown on illegal hiring, Los Angeles garment manufacturer Mike Lee said he will be forced to take on a new role.

"All of a sudden they want the employers to act as policemen," said Lee, former president of the Korean Apparel Manufacturers Assn. "I am a businessman."

The immigration regulations announced Friday could hinder industries throughout California and the nation, including agriculture, hospitality and landscaping.

In Los Angeles County, one of the hardest hit could be the $33-billion garment industry.

More than 59,000 garment workers -- many believed to be undocumented immigrants -- are employed in the county. Nationwide, 26% of textile and garment workers and 18% of sewing machine operators are undocumented, according to 2005 data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center.

"It could be very, very disruptive," said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Currently, employers are required to check documents such as a permanent residence card -- a green card -- or a Social Security card, but aren't required to verify that the documents are valid.

The Social Security Administration sends letters when names and numbers don't match, but workers and employers often ignore those notices.

"They look the other way and hope everything is OK," said Joe Rodriguez, executive director of the Garment Contractors Assn.

Under the new regulations, employers must fire workers with discrepancies in their Social Security data -- or face fines.

The government also plans to increase fines by 25% against companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers and to expand criminal investigations.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to begin implementing the Social Security "no-match" reforms within 30 days.

Worker organizers said that the rules will lead to more discrimination and exploitation of immigrant laborers.

"This is going to be one more tool that employers are going to use to repress and intimidate and abuse them," said Delia Herrera, an organizer at the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles.

Many workers already earn less than minimum wage and work as many as 13 hours a day, Herrera said.

Often, they take work home because many are paid by the piece.

Danny Park, executive director of the Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance, said he worries that employers will use the new rules to retaliate against garment employees who try to organize or join unions.

The consequences in Los Angeles aren't only for the employees, Park said.

"It will affect the whole community," he said. "A lot of income and wealth is generated from that industry."

For their part, employers have their own frustrations with the government's regulations. They say Homeland Security is putting them in the position of enforcing immigration law because Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

"It's their job to stop them from coming," said manufacturer Lee.

"Once they are here, what are you going to do then?"

Lee also worries that if he does fire workers, they will go to the Labor Department and claim they were unjustly fired.

Lonnie Kane, who owns Karen Kane Inc., has a workforce of a few hundred and said he expects to lose some of them.

"Would I imagine that some of them have issues with Social Security numbers?" he said. "I would expect so."

Kane said he also anticipates having a harder time finding new workers.

The enforcement will undoubtedly affect the apparel industry but won't shut it down, said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn. Metchek believes more manufacturers will move their operations offshore.

"If I have merchandise to get out the door, if I can't make it in Los Angeles," she said, "I will make it elsewhere."

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