In 21 years of anti-sweatshop organizing, Wing Lam never thought he'd help a garment factory owner.
Then came September 11–and with it, the slow demise of already-hurting garment manufacturers throughout Chinatown. Fearing the loss of thousands of jobs for local residents–half of Chinatown's 12,000 workers were out of work for the first week after the attacks, and business is down at least 20 percent sectorwide–Lam, director of the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association, is calling on the landlord of one such shop to stop harassing his tenant.
Jimmy Sheack, said Lam, has been trying to squeeze garment contractor Johnny Hung out of his building at 202 Centre Street by dunning him for disputed back rent, denying him access to the building's rickety elevator and taking up valuable storage space. Inside Hung's shop one recent afternoon, women barely looked up from their sewing machines as visitors walked past piles of shimmering peach silk, heaped on every available surface. In the back, piles of boxes and a couple of garment racks had been shoved aside to make room for a four-foot enclosure of aluminum beams blocking off a corner of the shop for electrical rewiring.
“Doesn't need a genius to see why they do this kind of thing, right?” said Lam, pointing to a document showing the rent for one of the building's newer business tenants–$14,083 a month. Hung's shop, based in the building since 1972, pays $3,800.
In October, Sheack took Hung to court for the $24,000 he says his tenant owes in back rent, a figure Lam claims is actually based on illegal, off-the-book cash payments often demanded by Chinatown landlords as “key money.” (Sheack representative Hung Luk denied the practice.)
Whoever is right in that battle, Lam said it has become critical for him to at least temporarily shift his efforts from fighting for back wages owed to workers to making sure these workers have jobs at all.
“They keep disappearing, you know?” said Teddy Lai, executive director of the Greater Blouse, Skirt and Undergarment Association. Of his 150 garment shop members, Lai said about 30, each employing roughly 40 women, have closed since the terrorist attacks. Lai expects few, if any, to reopen.
And a nosedive in business within the garment industry could make landlords wary to rent to these shops in the future. “I have a lot of friends in the business, I'm sympathetic to both sides, but I'd be very careful to rent to this type of use,” said Bill Lam, a Chinatown realtor who worked in sweatshops through high school and college. “They might be out of business in a matter of months.”
Bill Lam and others aren't sure what businesses will move in to Chinatown's empty garment shops, but few expect they will employ Chinatown residents. Said Wing Lam, waving at the 30 or so Chinese women in Hung's shop, “Dot-coms are not going to hire any of these immigrant women, right?”