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Asian women come out swinging.

San Francisco

Forty protesters pace in front of the Jessica McClintock boutique in downtown San Francisco. A dozen are Asian immigrant women who have not been paid for sewing the gowns hanging in the store's window. They are easy to spot: The women wear baseball caps and big sunglasses to hide from two photographers who are documenting the women's activities at the request of their new employers.

The women garment workers are out more than $15,000 in back wages from their bankrupt employer, Lucky Sewing Company, which subcontracted with McClintock. They are appealing to the larger company to pay them. So far, McClintock has refused.

Executive director of the Oakland-based Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) Young Shin has organized a nationwide boycott of Jessica McClintock's dresses.

Shin believes McClintock and other dress manufacturers should take responsibility for the sweatshop conditions of the garment industry. Last year, the Federal Government concurred, issuing a law to block shipment of "hot goods" -- garments sewn in shops that violate labor laws.

For Shin, the McClintock demonstration represents much more than an effort to recover lost wages, or even an attempt to reform the $6.5 billion Bay Area garment industry. It marks a significant step in organizing Asian immigrant women who have traditionally resisted such efforts for cultural reasons.

According to Shin, Korean immigrants are reluctant to come near anything associated with the words "union" or "labor."

"In Korea, unions have traditionally been viewed as communist organizations," says Shin. Likewise, Chinese immigrant women refuse to attend meetings, viewing them as an extension of the Communist Party. As a result, when Asian Immigrant Women Advocates started up in 1983, it looked as if its efforts were going to fail.

But AIWA found that Asian women desperately wanted to learn English. So it began offering workplace literacy classes; they taught English by teaching the women their rights at work. After learning the word "toxic" in a recent class held for Silicon Valley electronic workers, one student became alarmed because her desk was next to a barrel labeled TOXIC. "She'd worked there for two years and didn't know she was sitting next to toxic materials," says Shin.

Although AIWA has been successful in educating Asian immigrant women about their rights, it has been harder to prompt the women to act on those rights. For example, the electronics worker has yet to ask her employer about the toxics next to her desk.

Most of the immigrants come from countries where protests often end in deadly battles with the police. Shin herself, arriving from Korea in 1975, was reluctant to attend her first demonstration for fear of being beaten.

Most of the women work two jobs, leaving little time or energy to protest. And although the women will turn out in the hundreds to demonstrate for their children's right to be immunized, they are trained to believe that they themselves have no needs or rights and that to ask for them is selfish. Finally, there is the danger of being blacklisted in the garment industry.

Although it's difficult to gauge the impact of the boycott on McClintock's business, it's not hard to see that the Asian women are beginning to stand up for their rights. AIWA has managed to coordinate protests in ten cities.

As one woman said from behind her sunglasses and baseball cap, through an interpreter, "We are not asking for a revolution. We are only asking to be treated fairly."
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Title Annotation:Asian Immigrant Women Advocates
Author:Schuyler, Nina
Publication:The Progressive
Date:May 1, 1993
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