Cutting Out the Pattern

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Despite curtains blocking out the sun, the shop on Eldridge Street is bright. Fluorescent lights covering the low ceiling shine on Chinese women, maybe 30 in all, at work on a long row of sewing machines. All the women are silent, curved over their humming stations. Many wear glasses. Their hands move constantly. Piles of fabric gather on the floor. At each woman’s side, a little dried orange, green stem still intact. When I ask one what the oranges are for, she answers without looking up or slowing her hands: “For luck.”

There are more than 2,000 sweatshops in New York, employing mostly Latino or Asian female immigrants under substandard working conditions–backbreaking hours, dangerous shops, illegally low pay. Government solutions to sweatshop exploitation have focused on fining their employers. But the truth is that many sweatshop owners are ex-workers themselves–squeezed by their own bosses, namely clothing manufacturers and big retailers. Ultimately, fines do little to improve conditions.

“It’s not about violations,” sighs Louis Vanegas, walking down Eldridge. “You can always put out more inspectors and get more violations. It’s about changing the way the industry works.”

A slim man with small lines under his eyes and an easy smile, Vanegas has worked at the New York State Department of Labor for over 13 years. As a longtime DOL investigator he was a frontline witness to the futility of increasing fines for labor law violations. Contractors simply move or go out of business, reappearing elsewhere–and manufacturers hire them back, or hire others on the same exploitative terms. In the end, manufacturers respond to increased fines and regulations by moving more and more of their business overseas.

But now, Vanegas and a newly formed coalition of clothing companies are trying to rewrite the rules of garment manufacturing in the city. They want to give local clothing factories hard-to-resist reasons to pay workers legal dollars for legal hours–and encourage the companies that hire them to choose only those that have won the group’s seal of approval. With help from Vanegas’ agency, the New York City Apparel Industry Compliance Partnership (AICP) has begun a pilot training program for sweatshop owners. Ten contractors are now learning the ins and outs of labor law, how to keep a legitimate payroll, all about OSHA safety standards, even proper sewing machine maintenance.

Partnership organizers don’t dispute that it may cost clothing companies more to do legitimate business. But AICP also believes that it’s the only way to end the destructive cycle of exploitation, crackdowns and overseas departures that have come to characterize New York’s increasingly shaky garment industry. “We can’t expect the contractors to solve the problems of sweatshops alone,” says Amy Hall, director of social responsibility for clothing company Eileen Fisher. “The biggest thing we can do right now is have different parts of the industry talking to each other. That’s a huge step.”

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The garment industry has worked pretty much the same way for over a hundred years. Generally, a retailer (a department store) or manufacturer (the name brand or label) decides the type, quantity and turn-around time of a clothing item they want made. Contractors place bids, competing to offer the lowest possible cost. “There is no negotiating,” says Vanegas. “Often [contractors] have to take the price offered to them or go out of business.”

The contractor then hires workers, often pushing them to meet unreasonable deadlines and price quotes from the manufacturer. Employees often take piecework home so the contractor can meet her deadline.

“The contractor says they’re just setting the price the manufacturers demand, the manufacturers insist they’re setting the price the retailers demand, and the retailers say they’re just setting the price the customers demand,” says Christine Gastrinakis, a spokeswoman for Printmakers International, one of the manufacturers in AICP. “So no one comes out looking responsible.”

Profit margins–razor-thin at the bottom of the manufacturing chain, higher at the retail level–come out of the workers’ pay. “At each level–the contractor, the manufacturer, the retailer–what should be given to the worker is taken away,” says Trinh Duong of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association. As a result, says Duong, conditions on the shop floor haven’t changed much since the 1890s. Less than 30 percent of shops inspected by the Department of Labor comply with Federal and State minimum wage and overtime laws.

The garment industry still accounts for some 90,000 jobs in New York, the most of any manufacturing sector. Printmakers International contracts about 50 percent of its work in New York City and ships the rest overseas. “If we don’t do something soon,” says Gastrinakis, “there aren’t going to be any factories left in the States.”

But if contractors have little leverage against manufacturers, they have one small advantage, which AICP hopes to exploit: Because showroom designers need clothes quickly, at least some of their shops must be in the city, not overseas. “There’s no way shops here can compete with Guatemala for price,” says Linda Dworak of the Garment Industry Development Corporation (GIDC), a nonprofit that has held technology workshops for workers and contractors for over 10 years. “But for quick turnaround and quality control, they’re going to need to keep some of the business here.”

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Amy Hall first met Vanegas at a state meeting on sweatshops enforcement where she was the only manufacturer who showed up. Hall realizes that most other clothing companies don’t share her commitment; keeping garment shops in the city is how her group is striving to appeal to their enlightened self-interest. “We wanted to start AICP for moral reasons,” says Hall, “but we knew there had to also be economic reasons if we wanted the project to work and other groups to join.”

With help from GIDC, they devised the AICP pilot project. Each manufacturer nominated two contractors for a five-week training program, where they’ll learn business skills and good labor practices to help them be better employers. “A lot of contractors spend a lot of money just because they don’t know how to use the best equipment, how to plan the work and what the law is,” says Gastrinakis. “That’s money that could be going to pay workers overtime or back wages.”

After contractors complete the training and pass an exam and an independent audit, they will be given work by AICP’s member manufacturers and recommended to others looking for lawful contractors.

AICP’s manufacturers hope that with a steady source of high-quality, low-liability work, other manufacturers–and eventually retailers–will want to join. “Once we get a critical mass of people,” says Hall, “hopefully others will see it’s a good thing.”

A similar project worked in San Francisco. AICP is partly modeled on Made By the Bay, a nonprofit with a referral system for manufacturers and retailers that want to use non-sweatshop contractors. Since 1998, Made By the Bay has trained over 30 contractors in labor law, and referred them to over 50 local manufacturers. Its current roster of contractors gets 20 to 25 percent of their work through the organization.

Paul Gill, Made By the Bay’s executive director, believes that increasing efficiency–improving equipment, teaching contractors better payroll and hiring systems and training them in time-management–can translate to better pay and working conditions in shops without increasing manufacturer’s costs.

But in New York, with its much largermarket, longer history of abuse and sprawling network of shops, compliance may cost more. Efficiency, Duong points out, puts the onus on contractors–who, with the garment industry’s slim profit margins, can run shops as efficiently as possible and still have to underpay workers. The industry’s bad habits are “not about education,” she insists. “It’s about exploitation–by the contractors, manufacturers and retailers.”

Even the partnership admits that real change can only come from retailers and manufacturers at the top. If efficiency can translate into faster turnaround time and better quality, Hall hopes that manufacturers and retailers will be willing to pay a higher price–especially if the headache of dealing with violations goes down. “At some point, we’re going to have to put some money into paying the contractors more,” says Hall, “but we can’t do it unless the retailers understand that means everything will cost a bit more.”

Eventually, Vanegas hopes that heavier fines on retailers and manufacturers will force stores to choose clothing labels that work with law-abiding contractors. Retailers “have to understand when they say, ‘We want this garment at this low cost and this quick turnaround,'” says Vanegas, “they are basically creating a sweatshop condition.”

But AICP, a voluntary partnership of mostly small companies, doesn’t have the power to sway big retail. Few retailers want to admit sweatshop labor exists. So while Hall, Vanegas, and anti-sweatshop organizers all blame retailers as well as manufacturers, for now AICP is targeting the contractors. “It’s the easiest,” Hall admits. “We need to start with what is small and doable.”

For Duong, the sweatshops can’t be cleaned up until workers become part of the solution. Although it has contacts with groups like the Latino Workers Project, the textile union UNITE and the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, AICP says their partnership is still too new and too sensitive to include worker or union representation.

Duong disagrees. She always remembers what her mother said after her first day working in a sweatshop: ‘Now that I’ve worked my first day in the United States, I know my life is over.”

Unless they listen to people like her mother, she says, workers will be thought of last, if at all. “Until women workers have a real voice in how the system operates,” she says, “nothing will change.”

Rachel Neumann is a Brooklyn-based writer