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A landmark class-action lawsuit filed three years ago by Zeng Liu, a 50-year-old garment factory worker, and four of his co-workers against Donna Karan International and some of its subcontractors was quietly settled last month, according to lawyers on the case, opening the door for more suits of its kind.

Liu and his colleagues, who were later joined by more than 20 additional workers (mostly women), accused Donna Karan of withholding millions of dollars of overtime pay for their 70-plus–hour workweeks at factories the company uses in midtown Manhattan, including the Jen Chu Fashion Corporation.

The lawsuit, filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Manhattan’s Federal District Court, was the first class-action suit to directly accuse a major designer, and not just its factory subcontractors, of wage violations and sweatshop conditions. Now the garment workers will finally get their settlements–and advocacy groups like the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and Chinese Staff and Workers Association, who supported the workers, are hoping these settlements usher in a new wave of manufacturer accountability.

Once workers start complaining about wage violations, factories can — and often do — close down, relocate or reopen under a new name to avoid paying workers back wages; manufacturers can simply bring their orders to other garment factories. The suit against Donna Karan demanded that manufacturers be considered joint employers with their factories and, as joint employers, be held responsible for labor and wage violations.

“DKNY got away for a long time,” said Wing Lam, director of Chinese Staff and Workers Association. “Yes, you can go after the garment factory that doesn’t pay you, but if you can sue the manufacturer also, it opens up a space for real change.” The details of the settlement remain confidential — they are still being fine-tuned by lawyers. But according to Lam, “They were negotiating for more than half a million dollars.”

The settlement isn’t a complete victory: Donna Karan will pay only those 25 or so workers who filed suit, as opposed to all 300 workers in local factories making its clothing. And the factory owners have yet to come up with their share of the money owed. Defendant Jen Chu Fashion closed its doors only a few weeks after the workers filed their claims.

While Liu’s case was the first class action, it wasn’t the first time workers had sued Donna Karan. In 1999, garment worker Maria Bravo and six other Latina colleagues charged the company and a subcontractor, the Eastpoint International garment factory, with wage discrimination. They claim they were treated differently from their Chinese co-workers — paid less and forced to do more difficult handiwork.

The case, filed in federal court by the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and Urban Justice Center, was recently settled for $100,000. The owners of the Eastpoint factory closed shop shortly after the workers filed complaints, and, by default, did not participate in the case.

Donna Karan International had no comment on either settlement.

The workers, who could not comment on the case, won’t be getting their jobs back anytime soon, but as Megan Lewis at the Urban Justice Center said, “They’re happy to finally put the case behind them.”

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