Los Angeles Sweatshops Are Thriving, Experts Say


Almost one-fifth of the garment industry workers in Los Angeles, many of them foreigners who came to the United States to escape the crushing poverty of their homelands, are toiling in unregulated, sweatshop conditions, labor officials, economists and union organizers said today.

Exactly how many find themselves bound to employers who take advantage of their legal status, naivete and cultural alienation is not known. But experts said their numbers were flourishing despite a host of regulations on labor, health, safety and immigration designed to flush them out and shut their employers down.

“I have heard things like this for years,” said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the Los Angeles office of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s one of these dirty little secrets that everyone knows about.”

On Wednesday, state agents raided a makeshift garment factory in El Monte, Calif., where they found nearly 70 workers from Thailand who lived and worked, sometimes for years, in conditions the agents described as close to servitude.

Federal immigration officials acknowledged today that they knew of conditions at the El Monte factory nearly three years ago but that they took no action until state officials got a similar tip six weeks ago.

“The state solicited our participation to join them when they issued the search warrant, and we agreed,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “But later our people felt that it was inappropriate to be present for a state warrant. We thought that maybe the case would be thrown out for a technicality.”

Victoria Bradshaw, California’s Labor Commissioner, today called the El Monte situation an aberration. She added, “I don’t believe it’s widespread.”

Indeed, formal complaints about involuntary servitude are relatively rare. Since 1990, the Justice Department has prosecuted 29 people for violations of the antislavery laws, and 26 were convicted or pleaded guilty. Most of the cases involved migrant workers in Eastern states, not Asians in California.

Still, while brutal conditions like those found in the El Monte case are unusual, thousands of other workers often find themselves trapped in bleak, unregulated workplaces.

Of the estimated 120,000 garment industry workers in the Los Angeles area, 15,000 to 20,000 work in unregulated, sweatshop conditions, said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Economic Development Corporation of Los Angeles.

“A lot of times you get people coming from offshore and setting up these shops, because it’s a very easy industry to get into and you don’t need a lot of capital,” Mr. Kyser said. “But in many cases they don’t understand all the rules and regulations they have to comply with and all the forms they have to fill out.

“They’re probably doing business like they did it in the country of their origin, but in the United States, they’re breaking the law.”

In a random survey last year of 69 California garment manufacturers and contractors, the state Labor Department found rampant violations of safety and labor laws, including cases of employers locking fire exits and children as young as 13 working nine hours a day.

The survey also showed that 50 percent of employers violated rules requiring them to pay workers the minimum wage, 68 percent violated overtime requirements, and 92.8 percent violated various health and safety regulations. Workplace conditions are likely to be worst in makeshift factories that operate outside the law.

Joseph Rodriquez, executive director of the Garment Contractors Association, said: “Something like we saw in El Monte, with the slavery and barbed wire, is extremely rare. Unfortunately, it is not rare to find illegal contractors who are not registered with the state.”

He added: “The company that isn’t registered is probably violating minimum wage laws or overtime laws. That’s what gives our industry a bad name.”

At the El Monte factory, workers sewed strips of ready-to-wear garments, some of which ended up in major stores on the East Coast like Macy’s, Hecht’s and Filene’s, Ms. Bradshaw said today. Spokesmen for several companies said today that they had no knowledge that laws were being broken.

Jim Abrams, a spokesman for May Department Stores, owner of both Filene’s and Hecht’s, said, “Our purchase orders clearly require vendors to comply with the Labor Standards Act and all applicable regulations.”

He added, “We are in the process of attempting to ascertain if in fact this incident in El Monte involves merchandise being manufactured for delivery to any May division and, if so, the vendor involved.”

Carol Sanger, a spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores, the owner of Macy’s, said: “The first we heard about it was what we read in the paper this morning. And we have tried to get in touch with the appropriate authorities in California to find out what exactly it is that they found, because we have no knowledge of the operation, no record of ever doing business with any vendor or subcontractor with any operations in El Monte.

“The situation is appalling and would not be anything we condone.”

Chanchanit Mortorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles and one of the first people to see the El Monte factory after the raid, said there were numerous violations of health and safety laws at the site.

“When the authorities asked the workers to open the doors, they couldn’t,” she said. “They were locked from the outside. The police had to ax down each door. Everyone was shocked and terrified.”

Another community leader, Nongyao Varanond, president of Thai Inc., a service program, said that of the shops she had visited, “only a few are like the one in El Monte.” She added, “The others are usually in good condition, but the workers are paid less than the minimum wage.

“They don’t have any place to go,” Ms. Varanond said. “Where else can they find a job here? All of them are illegal.”

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