Sunset Park’s Garment Industry: The Costs of Making it in NY

Garment workers parading on May Day, New York City, 1916.
Photo from George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Like other manufacturers, many large clothing makers have moved their factories out of New York City, in search of cheap real estate and cheap labor. Meanwhile, the mid-level manufacturers who continue to produce here—and who remain concentrated in Sunset Park—struggle not only with the high costs, but also with the industry’s reputation for “sweatshop” exploitation of Chinese workers. In the face of the industry’s current decline, mid-level manufacturers and organizations in the city’s apparel industry have been making efforts to improve wages and working conditions. Whether those reforms will be effective is an open question, and its answer inevitably will shape the future of Sunset Park.

How did Sunset Park become the center of garment making in New York City? As is often the case with local demographics, the city’s branching network of public transportation has spread its population into unexpected areas. In the 1980s, Manhattan’s and Queens’ already crowded Chinatowns pushed new arrivals into Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. The N linking to the (at the time) express R train ran into Manhattan’s Chinatown, the focal point for work in the garment and restaurant industry. In 1987, a couple of thousand Chinese immigrants lived in this Brooklyn enclave. Now, well over 100,000 thousand live here, spilling over into traditionally Eastern European neighborhoods.

During the booming economy of the mid-90s, increasing rental costs pushed garment factories out of both the Midtown garment district and the once comparably cheaper Manhattan Chinatown. Rental costs mainly increased due to the growing pressure to convert manufacturing space to higher residential and commercial use values. Factories thus started moving to Sunset Park, where many of their commuting workers lived. At its peak, 300 garment factories provided work to the local immigrant population. Some blatantly opened shops in storefronts along commercial streets such as 8th Ave. In 1999, the Department of Labor fined eight factories over $100,000 dollars in back wages and contacted the sourcing retailers, such as JC Penny and Lord & Taylor, in order to encourage monitoring at all levels.

As Leah Archibald, executive director of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corp., points out, Sunset Park’s three to five story buildings attract light industries such as garment factories. According to a New York State Department of Labor’s 1998 study, of the 40% jobs in Sunset Park that qualify as general manufacturing, half are in the garment industry.

Although Sunset Park has continued to experience general industrial development, the number of garment factories has actually shrunken to approximately 150. According to the Brooklyn Bureau of Commerce’s Randy Peers, who is also a member of Sunset Park’s Community Board, “the reality is that our garment industry is in decline.” The higher cost of labor here, as compared to overseas, makes it more expensive to produce locally. In addition, the recent national economic downturn has forced many of these remaining factories to underbid in order to stay competitive. Such pressures only encourage the industry’s “sweatshop”-like conditions. The underbidding factory often pays their workers less than minimum wage and still makes them work overtime, which is often unpaid since many workers are off the books.

Just as 8th Ave is only a stop on the line, one can ride the train back to Manhattan’s Chinatown to see where workers still flood the factories along Eldridge Street. Now that Brooklyn has fewer factories, vans from Manhattan pick the workers up at street corners or at home in Sunset Park. This has actually decreased Sunset Park’s commercial street business during the week, since many of the workers purchase their groceries in Manhattan before returning directly home.

One can ride the train further and arrive along 7th Ave and the streets in the mid-30s. There the heart of New York City’s garment industry still provides work to many of these recent immigrants. Manufacturers (of both designer and brand labels) and retailers prefer this easy access to the product for quality checks, changes and quick turnaround. Proximity of design to execution is the ideal circumstance for an industry known for its seasonal kaleidoscope of clothing.

In 1984, a group of industry, labor and government leaders developed the Garment Industry Development Corporation (GIDC) to help sustain and maintain jobs in New York. Linda Dworak, executive director of GIDC, states that the group exists to “help the good players stay competitive.” Contractors can source through GIDC’s list of factories that passed through either a GIDC exam, one from the Department of Labor, or an independent monitor’s audit. GIDC also provides engineers to help improve a factory’s technical efficiency as well as its ability to meet higher labor standards. Linda Dworak cites this need to improve factories as a way to encourage worker retention and not lose good workers to another factory.

This sudden surge in self-monitoring reflects a growing awareness within the industry that change needs to start at home. In terms of working conditions, Amy Hall, manager of Social Accountability for Eileen Fisher and co-founder of Apparel Industry Compliance Program (AICP) admits, “it’s a complex issue.” She notes how manufacturers and factory owners are constantly trying to save money. Workers also ask for cash payments either because they are told to or because they do not yet understand the taxing system. This encourages off-the-book employment and easy manipulation of the recorded wages paid.

Six major manufacturers, headed by clothing company Eileen Fisher, created AICP in 2000 in order to find or develop factories with fair wages and labor practices. Amy Hall says that she took on this project due to her personal frustration of going to factories and seeing poor wages and conditions. Working with GIDC, Hall’s group acts as an independent monitor and provides better management training for factory owners, who must pass the State and Federal Labor Departments test in order to be on AICP’s approved list. As of late 2003, 13 factories (including Calvin Klein) have passed their vigorous screening. Amy Hall notes that in a tight economy, this monitoring will help those who care rise to the top. Since passing the test, one factory owner has received more business and now plans to open a new factory.

GenArt developed a program to help emerging designers, both through GenArt’s runway shows and its links to established sources in the industry. While providing a new industry player with needed exposure, the group also aids with sourcing through its connection to GIDC. These networks within the industry have helped new designers and mid- to high-level manufacturers make the industry less harsh from the top down.

Despite improvements, the reality is that wages in the industry are still extremely low and workers are unable to push for raises, for fear of losing their jobs. As Paul Mak, executive director of the Brooklyn Chinese Association, points out, “A worker would rather earn $3 an hour and work, than $5.15 and not work.” The language barrier limits many of these recent immigrants from finding jobs outside the garment and restaurant industry. Wei Chen, an organizer for the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association (CSWA), points out that documented as well as undocumented workers are willing to take on the 70-plus hour work week (the equivalent of two people’s jobs) just to have an income. A combination of limited job skills and a tight economy mean that recent immigrants need the more readily available employment in the garment industry.

Wei Chen expresses doubt over the effectiveness of industry self-monitoring. From the grassroots level, she sees the additional need for workers to organize and boycott or strike against the manufacturers that are seen as the instigators of rush orders and 24-hour workdays. The CSWA recently had a successful campaign against DKNY. The results, however, led both to payment of back wages and then DKNY going overseas with its production. Regardless of the move, Chen says that the CSWA will continue to push for more effective labor laws and stronger punishments.

For the most part, mid-level manufactures cannot afford to “escape” and source outside the United States. Linda Dworak of GIDC explains that many independent designers simply do not produce large enough quantities to source overseas. Meanwhile, although independent designers are small-scale producers, Saara Triaster of the design label Prudence stresses the need to bring down her company’s prices by increasing volume. Higher volume may mean only a hundred shirts, but this translates to regular orders for local factories. Janis Stemmermann, designer and owner of Brooklyn Handknits, notes that one of the factories she sources from prefers small-scale producers because of the steady work they provide. Larger producers will use the factory once for a big job but not become a constant customer. This symbiotic relationship between local factories and designers increases the necessity of maintaining garment production in New York City.

In addition, industry conservation in the city helps maintain blue-collar work and a diverse tax base. The non-profit New York Industrial Retention Network (NYIRN) recognizes this need and provides citywide direct service to help manufacturers and producers stay in the city. Despite the general decline in the garment industry, the organization foresees a core group of producers surviving in Manhattan in order to meet a manufacturer’s demand for quick turnarounds and changes. In turn, those producers will keep relying on factory production in Sunset Park. As Marnie McGregor, project manager for NYIRN, notes, “Sunset Park is a solid industrial area,” and it will continue to be especially valued as a production zone by contractors squeezed out of Manhattan.

Retailers, mid-level manufacturers and independent designers who live and work here need the very same commuters sitting on the train to Canal Street or 34th street and vice versa. The “Made in New York” garment label thus reflects a wide mixture of different talents and ethnicities that create the end product. The GIDC, Apparel Industry Compliance Program, GenArt, NYIRN, along with the workers themselves and unions such as the CSWA, must work together to ensure that the product is made with fair wages and labor practices. The need to keep the garment industry vital and afloat affects many lives in New York, especially those in Sunset Park. With all the different groups working together, the label “Made in New York” stands to become something more than just another slogan.

Contributor

Mo-Yain Tham

Mo-Yain Tham is a writer formerly based in Clinton Hill who now attends graduate school in D.C.

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