October 1995, Volume 1, Number 4
Regulating the Immigrant Labor Market
On July 11, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich held a press
conference near Fresno, California to announce that so far in FY95,
DOL had assessed growers and contractors about $2.1 million for
underpayment of 2,700 farm workers. In a few cases, growers responded
to fines by announcing publicly that they were taking corrective
actions, but most growers responded that they do comply with federal
and state laws.
In August, a federal-state task force raided a garment factory in
Los Angeles and found 70 Thai immigrants living and working in a
fenced seven-unit apartment complex that they could not leave.
According to the workers, most worked 84 hours weekly sewing garments
for wages that averaged $1.60 per hour, far less than California's
$4.25 minimum hourly wage. The workers had the cost of smuggling them
to the US deducted from their pay.
The apartment complex's owner as well as neighbors said they did
not suspect that the fenced apartment complex was an illegal
sweatshop that held workers inside against their will. The nine Thai
operators and guards at the complex have been charged with a variety
of immigration and labor law violations that carry penalties of up to
$3 million and 30 years in jail; $750,000 in cash and gold was found
in the factory, some of which may be used to pay workers who were not
paid the minimum wage to which they were entitled.
California Governor Wilson attacked the Clinton Administration for
not cracking down on sweatshops that employ illegal immigrants.
In 1994, Governor Wilson vetoed a bill which would have
automatically made the beneficiaries of work done in sweatshops
liable for labor law violations committed there. According to Wilson,
"it is plainly inequitable to hold manufacturers liable for the acts
of separate and independent businesses when they have no control over
On August 23, INS agents discovered three more sweatshops,
unregistered factories that employed 56 illegal Asian workers
smuggled into the US by Asian smuggling rings to sew garments for
contractors who supply major retailers such as JC Penny. In
California, garment manufacturing is a $46 billion industry that
involves 4000 legal, and perhaps another 1,000 illegal, workplaces
and 125,000 workers.
Some immigrant worker advocates are concerned that highly
publicized raids will drive garment shops further underground. The
raids have highlighted the difficulties involved in simultaneously
enforcing immigration and labor laws.
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
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.
John-Thor Dahlburg, "Sweatshop case dismays few in Thailand," Los
Angeles Times, August 27, 1995; James Steingold, "Crime Rings Tied to
Sweatshops," New York Times, August 25, 1995; Seth Mydans, "A New
Wave of Immigrants on the Lowest Rung in Farming," New York Times,
August 24, 1995; "Fed help for field workers," AP, July 12, 1995; Jim
Simon, "Growers Want to Import Workers--Foes Say Move is Just a Way
to Ensure Cheap Labor," The Seattle Times, July 11, 1995. Louis
Freedberg, "Growers Push for 'Guest' Field Hands," The San Francisco
Chronicle, June 30, 1995.