Sweatshop Activists Follow the Money 

New legislation attempts to make garment manufacturers responsible for workers' pay.

Barry Wong's small garment business on 14th Street in downtown Oakland is squeezed into a narrow storefront. The one-room shop is filled with drafting tables, paper patterns, a rack of clothing, and a few computers. This is Wong's "marking room," where patterns for clothes are designed and created; Wong also owns a small factory where clothes are actually sewn. Though those small factories are frequently called sweatshops, Wong insists that they're not, "except for the owners." He does admit, however, that life is hard for the mostly female Asian immigrant factory workers, who work long hours at low pay in his factory. "In the garment industry, the benefit for the worker may not be so good compared to other industries," he concedes readily. "But that's because we are not able to afford that."

Like many of the approximately ninety garment-factory owners in Oakland, Wong decided to invest his savings in a sewing shop after immigrating from Hong Kong. "It's very easy for a Chinese to run a garment factory," he explains. "Every Chinese family has at least one person who knows how to do it."

Within a month, Wong's marking shop will be all that's left of his business; the factory itself will be shut down, leaving Wong's handful of workers out of a job. "I make no profit," he explains. "I work day and night, losing money, credit card bills this high. So why do I work so hard?"

Wong argues that contractors like himself have traditionally been caught in the middle between labor activists who want better pay and protections for workers, and garment retailers and manufacturers, who demand lower and lower costs for their orders. Wong and other factory owners say pressure from cheap imports is making it harder and harder for family-owned businesses here at home to abide by strict wage laws.

Surprisingly enough, the contractors recently found unlikely allies among labor activists like Hina Shaw, staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus. "The way the garment industry is structured, it creates a pyramid of abuse," Shaw says. "Let's not blame the contractors; let's really root out the problem, which is the manufacturers. Contractors are caught in the middle, in the tough position of staying afloat and in business, but still paying minimum wage."

In an attempt to deal with the problem and to place responsibility for labor abuse on those they felt were ultimately responsible, labor activists concerned with the sweatshop issue banded together to pass legislation in Sacramento. The bill they passed, Assembly Bill 633, empowers the state to name large clothing manufacturers as guarantors for wage claims made by workers who were not paid adequately. But although AB 633 went into effect last year, advocates and small factory owners are now worried that rather than improving the situation, the legislation may have inadvertently made the problem worse, making things even harder for contractors, and doing nothing to help workers get paid.

Oakland's Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, a member of the national Sweatshop Watch coalition, was a major force in getting AB 633 on the books. An agency that offers health clinics, literacy and leadership training, and youth internships to the garment worker community, AIWA encouraged many of its members to testify before the legislator during hearings on AB 633. "I work ten to twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week, no overtime pay, no benefits," one worker testified. "My wage was never enough money for our family to live on. We always worried about our daughter getting sick because we had no health insurance. In 1992, my coworkers and I tried to cash our paychecks and learned that they bounced. When we asked the boss to pay us our wages, we discovered that his business had gone under. Our situation was not uncommon because retailers and manufacturers are responsible for our working conditions, but there are no laws to hold retailers and manufacturers accountable for violations in the contract shops."

Activists acknowledge that factory conditions in Oakland are not as dire as those affecting workers in Southern California. Here, activists were able to strike deals with three major Bay Area manufacturers -- Jessica McClintock, Byer, and Esprit -- that established hotlines for workers to report workplace violations directly to manufacturers. But working conditions are not perfect, either; an informal AIWA survey found that nearly eighty percent of Oakland's shops -- including factories that sew for brand names such as Travelsmith, We Be Bop, Byer, Tommy Hilfiger, Bebe, and Raiders/49ers Wear -- received ratings of "very poor" or "extremely poor" on government compliance exams for deficiencies such as poor lighting, no ventilation, or inadequate emergency exits. "Most of the women work on metal folding chairs," says AIWA's Nan Lashuay, "but they're afraid to speak up; they're afraid to lose their jobs. Even industry advocates concur that garment workers have a rough life: "By and large it's a crappy job, there's no question," says Paul Gill, executive director of industry support group Made by the Bay. "Those individuals who develop language skills very rapidly get off the sewing machine."

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