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October 1995, Volume 2, Number 10

Immigration and Sweatshops

On September 12, the US Department of Labor held a "summit" with garment industry leaders and retailers in New York to discuss labor law violations in the $89 billion garment industry. The New York hearing featured women employed in sweatshops telling Labor Secretary Robert Reich about how little they were paid for long hours of work.

Reich also met with 15 major retailers to discuss how better to enforce labor laws in the shops that sew the garments they sell. One suggestion was to include adherence to the Fair Labor Standards Act in the contracts that flow from retailers and designers through intermediaries to the sewing shops--DOL has only 900 investigators nationwide to enforce the nation's basic minimum wage and child labor laws.

There are 22,000 sewing shops nationwide employing one million workers, including an estimated 140,000 mostly Latino and Asian workers--80 percent women-- who are employed in 5,000 legal sewing shops and 1,000 sweatshops that operate without authorization in California. There are estimated to be 4,500 sewing shops employing 50,000 workers in New York City.

El Monte was the Los Angeles area city in which the Thai slave sweatshop was discovered in August 1995. Local officials argue that a sweatshop could have been found in any working class city in the Los Angeles area. El Monte's population of 110,000 is 60 percent Latino and 25 percent Asian.

A review of the evolution of the Los Angeles economy argues that the Los Angeles labor market experienced two subtractions and one addition that add up to a two-tier economy and society. The subtractions were the loss of consumer durables in the early 1980s, and the loss of aerospace and defense jobs in the early 1990s. The addition were low-wage jobs, as illustrated by sewing jobs, and the fact that, in the 1990 Census, the South Central Los Angeles congressional district replaced the Mississippi Delta as having the lowest per capita income in the US.

A review of the INS efforts to enforce employer sanctions, and thereby prevent situations such as the Thai slavery sweatshop, criticized the agency for failing to follow up on tips as early as 1988 that Thai workers may have been held against their will in the apartment complex.

DOL enforcement has also failed to ensure compliance. A DOL inspection on September 15, 1995 of 50 registered sewing shops in Los Angeles found violations in 46.

The Thai slave case prompted a review of other cases of immigrant smuggling and exploitation. A raid on a New York brothel found a madam "buying" Thai women for $6,000 to $15,000 each, and then requiring the women to repay her by having sex with men--the $100 paid by each man was kept by the madam; the prostitute received only tips.

Japan also faces a problem with Thai women who have been sold as prostitutes to work in Japanese brothels. Women's activist organizations say that there are up to 50,000 Thai women working as prostitutes in Japan. Most of the women have been bought for as much as $200,000 from Thai recruiters or members of Japan's underworld, the yakuza.

On September 19, three Chinese men were arrested in California for killing a Chinese immigrant in New York whose family in China had failed to pay the ransom demanded. According to authorities, the kidnappers were part of the Fujianese Flying Dragons, a gang that specializes in kidnapping female Chinese immigrants in the US and demanding that their families in China pay ransom.


James Sterngold, "Agency Missteps put Illegal Aliens at Mercy of Sweatshops," New York Times, September 21, 1995; Randy Kennedy, "3 Men held in Slaying of Immigrant," New York Times, September 20, 1995. Don van Natta, "Sweatshops Described to Official," New York Times, September 13, 1995. Robin Givhan, "A Train on Fashion," The Washington Post, September 12, 1995. Carey Goldberg, "From a Bangkok Grocery to a Brothel in New York," New York Times, September 12, 1995. "Garment Factory Owners Indicted," Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1995. John-Thor Dahlburg, "Smuggling People to US is Big Business in Thailand," Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1995. Linda Yeung, "Trafficking in women is becoming a growth industry worldwide," South China Morning Post, September 4, 1995.