This past August, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who represents Williamsburg and Sunset Park, cut her Banana Republic credit card to pieces in protest against that retailer’s alleged reliance on sweatshop labor. Standing outside the retail store she reportedly shouted, “Shame on you… we will hold you accountable!” For Congresswoman Velazquez, it’s an issue that hits close to home. Of 17 Brooklyn garment contractors found in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by the Department of Labor (DOL), the overwhelming majority of them were within her Congressional district. The growing presence of sweatshops in these ethnically diverse neighborhoods is no coincidence. They are proliferating in tandem with the immigrant population that live and work in portions of Brooklyn.
“See how tired we are, see how hard we work,” Mrs. Ku says in her native Mandarin Chinese. Sitting in the Sunset Park office of Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association (CSWA), Mrs. Ku recalled long hours and dangerous conditions while working at a potato chip factory. “It’s not safe,” she said. “We couldn’t spend time with our co-workers. It was just—do, do, do! And we didn’t even get much money.”
Mrs. Ku came to Brooklyn to escape the political instability and poverty of post-revolutionary China. Unaware of living costs, the wages she’d heard about in the U.S. seemed astronomical compared to her $10 monthly salary. Eight years ago Mrs. Ku injured her back when she fell into one of the machines. After three months she stopped receiving workers compensation and for the past eight years her case has been tied up in court. Despite some frustration, she still extols the freedoms of American life. “You can say what you want,” she said then countered, “but it’s so hard to get anyone to listen.”
In the past three decades New York City has experienced a massive immigration influx as Latino and Chinese communities exploded. As some ethnic neighborhoods in Manhattan reached capacity, new immigrant communities developed, and continue to swell, in the other boroughs. Brooklyn is the first stop for many in the quest to realize the American dream.
In search of cheap labor, industry followed. Recalling the trend in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Wing Lam, Director of CSWA, notes that “in the ’70s and ’80s Chinatown grew tremendously and less than a hundred shops became several thousand.” In the ’80s, however, unions pushed for legislation that would protect American-born workers. The result was the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCS), also known as Employer Sanctions. The law essentially stated that employers would certify their employees’ immigrant status and would be responsible for hiring only legal aliens. According to some labor activists the law had the exact opposite effect. What was originally created to protect the labor force actually debilitated works, says Lam. “In Chinatown,” he explains, “if you want to get a job you have to tell the boss that you are undocumented. The boss loves undocumented [workers]. And you’ve got to beat them—make them work faster and cheaper…In the ’80s, Chinese people worked 40 hours per week.” Now, he says, many laborers have been found to work up to 110 hours per week without overtime. The more limited the options for employees, legal and illegal, the more vulnerable they are to exploitation.
Sunset Park saw an almost 200 percent rise in its Asian population between 1980 and 1990. In Williamsburg/Greenpoint and Sunset Park, Latino communities make up just under half the local populations, so the rise was a more modest 13-14 percent. However, especially in the Asian community, it is the figures not counted that are most significant in terms of the labor force. In 1998, Time Magazine reported the CIA’s estimates that 100,000 illegally smuggled Chinese aliens entered the United States every year, most from Fujian Province. The population change is reflected by the language heard on the street in New York’s Chinatown, which has shifted from the formerly dominant Cantonese dialect, spoken in the Southeastern Guangdong Province, to Mandarin, which is spoken in Fujian.
Wing Lam believes that the recent boom in illegal alien smuggling is linked to Employer Sanctions since the law has created a demand for undocumented labor. “They say the employer is not allowed to hire someone if they are undocumented but since that law passed, in reality, we have more undocumented [workers].” In battling what they see as an $8 billion industry, Immigration and Naturalization Services agree that many human smuggling rings may have been created by employers seeking cheap labor, although they have yet to specify Employer Sanctions as an accomplice.
Among the most often cited retainers of immigrant labor, documented and otherwise, is the garment industry. Steaming buildings in Sunset Park and Williamsburg conceal a rugged trade hidden behind closed doors and foreign languages.
The Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) estimates that over 60 percent of New York’s 7,000-plus garment factories operate in sweatshop conditions. In Brooklyn alone, seven contractors were found in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by the Department of Labor between October and December. In the fiscal year 2000, DOL found 17 Brooklyn contractors in violation of FLSA owing workers in excess of a quarter-million dollars in back wages. A name that seems to come up repeatedly in labor disputes is a manufacturer named Street Beat.
In 1997 three workers came to CSWA claiming that they had been forced to work an average of 110 hours per week, and once, over 137 hours. They had been employees for a manufacturer named Street Beat Sportswear. One employee of Street Beat told CSWA, “I also worked very long hours but did not receive overtime pay. I demanded the boss pay me the wages that I am entitled to. A lot of Fukienese workers would work until 11 o’clock without diner to eat. We regularly worked until 3 o’clock in the morning.”
After CSWA held demonstrations outside of Street Beat’s largest factories, a gang, allegedly led by Street Beat operators, burst into the CSWA office and attacked employees, An assailant reportedly threatened to kill one of the organizers. Eventually, Street Beat was found guilty of violating labor laws and ordered to pay $285,000 in back wages. However, the company remains steadfastly unrepentant. At the end of 2000, another one of its contractors was found in violation of FLSA and ordered to pay over $2000 in back wages.
A retailer that purchases clothes from Street Beat is Sears, Roebucks Co. The company never returned requests for comment, which seems to be par for the course with major retailers. As Lara Liu, a staff organizer with CSWA, observes, “All corporations have to do is say, ‘well as far as we know, we’re working within the labor laws and with union shops.’ But in fact there are no laws that insist that manufactures and retailers actually be legally held accountable for all these abuses. There is a legal layer between them and all these conditions.”
The Garment industry is a business struggling to maintain some foothold in the United States. According to the Apparel and Manufacturing Association, there has been a 43 percent decline in the workforce since the 1970s. Much of the production can be done in other countries, more so with increasing trade liberalization.
The chain of command in the apparel industry begins with retailers like Sears and Kmart, who purchase clothes from manufacturers and resell them to consumers. It is at this level that the price is set and manufacturers bid for their orders. Now, with Third World prices on the playing field, factories must produce for less to out-bid their competitors. This can be achieved by paying workings per piece, enforcing mandatory overtime, and even hiring undocumented immigrants.
While what defines a “sweatshop” is ambiguous, legally it can be any company that violates FLSA and the written Code of Conduct, which states that employees must receive minimum wage, overtime, and the right to bargain collectively. Although the DOL does investigate complaints, the Code of Conduct agreement is a self-monitoring system. When the Department of Labor investigates a sweatshop, it is the contractor (hired by the manufacturer) that is held accountable. However, even the contractor can still manage to bypass liability. CSWA says that back wages are often avoided by simply closing shop and opening under a new name. They say that DOL sues companies, not people—the system does not view contractors and the owners as one and same.
Although the garment industry is among the most visible violators of labor laws, it has ample company—the utilization of immigrant labor spans through a variety of trades, from restaurants to construction. As Karah Newton of National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS) says of these industries, “they prey upon people who need jobs… whoever is devalued in the population.”
Maria, for example, came to Brooklyn from Russia to be with her husband and daughter who themselves came five years prior. For nine years she was a home attendant, working upwards of twelve hours a day. Although she was paid over minimum wage for her daytime shifts, she only received $17 for overnight shifts and no overtime. Because Maria came to keep her family together, she noted the irony felt that the long hours undermined her very purpose for moving to the United States. “I was completely lost from my family. My daughter was without supervision because my husband was also working.” Maria was eventually injured on the job when she slipped on a wet floor. She herniated two disks in her back but only received six months of workers compensation.
At the present time Brooklyn is the gateway to America for many immigrants, yet as the Chinatown example has shown, to indenture any worker is to set the standard for all of labor. As Wing Lam puts it, “Once you allow a group of people to become slaves, everyone becomes slaves.” And so if their experience is to continue determining the shape of American life, the depth of immigrant workers’ organization may yet determine the future of American labor.