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SEAMY SOLUTION? : CLOTHIERS HIRE SWEATSHOP COPS TO ENFORCE LAW.

Byline: Andrea Adelson The New York Times

In the latest crackdown on sweatshops in the nation's largest garment center, investigators, working in teams of two, stand watch outside sewing factories, noting the number of employees and their arrival times.

Then, moving inside, they split up. One inspector occupies the management, checking time cards, immigration work permits, tax forms and other documents. The other talks to workers on the floor, interviewing enough of them to ensure that none can be singled out as a whistle-blower.

The investigators' reports, grading the workplace for compliance with state and federal laws on safety and wages, can be damning. There is just one catch: these are not government agents; they are employees of a private company, the Cal Safety Compliance Corp. And their reports are not sent to law enforcement officials, but rather to Cal Safety's clients, the big clothing makers who contract with the small sewing shops and are under pressure from the federal government to clean up their act.

In fact, the 52 inspectors who work for Cal Safety have instructions to introduce themselves as ``manufacturers' representatives,'' so that the owners and their employees ``will know we're not the government,'' said Carol Pender, who founded the company in 1990.

So how effective can their efforts be? That is an important question in an industry that has thwarted numerous attempts over the years to eliminate the exploitation of its workers. Critics say the self-policing is doomed to failure because the interests of the big clothing companies to have clothes made cheaply runs counter to the government's goal to end exploitation.

But the Labor Department thinks otherwise. With fewer than 800 labor standards inspectors to police U.S. workplaces, a 19 percent decline over the last decade, it is the inspiration behind the private sector's involvement in the drive against sweatshop abuses.

In Washington on May 3, the department issued its first-ever report on the nation's garment workers, showing that almost half of the sewing shops that were investigated had violated federal labor laws. The largest number of enforcement actions, 86, taken in the six months that ended March 31 were in California, while the total of back wages recovered for employees was greatest in New York, at $593,000.

In November 1992, the Labor Department began invoking an obscure provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that authorized it to confiscate ``hot goods.'' It threatened manufacturers with the seizure of clothing produced by exploited labor, unless they could show they were making honest efforts to buy only from legitimate operators.

The effort got under way slowly but was bolstered last summer by the public furor over the discovery of a slave camp for Thai immigrants in El Monte. Police found nearly 70 workers locked inside a dilapidated garment factory surrounded by barbed wire and spiked fences.

The prisoners had been forced to stitch together American brand-name clothes under threats of death if they tried to escape. Federal labor officials later notified more than a dozen large retailers that goods from the plant may have ended up in their stores.

Two of the owners were sentenced to six years in prison April 29, and five others are scheduled to be sentenced Monday.

Meantime, the Labor Department's threat to confiscate tainted merchandise from clothing companies has spawned a new industry concentrated in the Los Angeles area of private ``sweatshop cops.'' These specialists are hired by the clothing manufacturers to audit the payroll practices and interview the employees of their subcontractors.

The biggest is Cal Safety, which has already signed up more than 100 garment makers. Other inspection companies include Apparel Resources of Yorba Linda, which was founded in 1992 and has 40 clients, and Stonefield Josephson, an accounting firm in Santa Monica, which began offering the service to its clients 1992. In addition, many manufacturers say they monitor their own contractors.

Most clients receive detailed quarterly reports on their subcontractors, with failing grades given for violation of wage or safety laws or payroll discrepancies. Pender of Cal Safety said her auditors had inspected 90 percent of the state's 4,000 licensed contractors and had given so many low ratings that half had been cut off by at least one manufacturer.

CAPTION(S):

Photo, Chart

Photo: (color) California labor standards officers c onfiscate garments during raids at L.A. sewing shops.

The New York Times

Chart: LESS OVERSIGHT OF A BIGGER BUSINESS
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 4, 1996
Words:736
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