Government investigators in New York are looking into the growing number of small manufacturing firms in the garment industry that employ workers, usually women, at illegally low wages and under hazardous conditions.
The workshops, which provide work for an estimated 50,000 people, often are located in lofts, cellars, or former stores. They are today's sweatshops and they are reemerging not only in New York but also in south Florida, the Southwest, and other parts of the country. The reasons for their comeback can be traced to the pressure of foreign competition on the apparel industry and the availability of women immigrants, many in this country illegally, who are willing to work at below the legal minimum rates.
Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, testifying before a congressional committee March 24, said a Labor Department task force is checking into the situation in New York. He promised a crackdown against employers found to be in violation of federal laws covering wages, working conditions, and safety.
If there is a crackdown, sources in the industry say, half of more of the roughly 3,000 operations in New York alone will be forced to shut down, idling tens of thousands of women and sending them onto unemployment and welfare rolls.
"They are giving work to people who need jobs," one manufacturer explained. "They can only operate if they can compete with garment producers using dirt-cheap labor in the Far East."
Despite concern over the joblessness that could result from a federal crackdown, few, if any, observers in the apparel industry defend sweatshop operations. They are grim workshops where workers are overcrowded, aisles and exits often blocked, and fire and health regulations ignored.
The problems of sweatshops are easily recognized. Doing something about them has proved to be difficult. The city's jurisdiction is limited to building code and fire regulations. Serious shortages of inspectors have forced reductions in checks on workshops so that only about 10 to 15 percent are inspected annually. These are likely to be larger, unionized shops. The last major inspector of small sweatshops was in Chinatown in 1979.
The federal government is responsible for enforcing minimum wage, working conditions, and safety and health laws. Its few inspectors in New York ordinarily are kept busy checking on complaints and, according to Nicholas DiArchangel, deputy regional administrator of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in New York, "very few complaints come from sweatshops."
The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), which has jurisdiction in the industry, is unable to do anything about sweatshops unless it can organize shop workers and force employers to sign standard contracts. The union is "trying harder than ever" says Frederick Siems, ILGWU executive vice-president, but it is making little progress.
Sweatshops employees work on a piece-work basis, as do many workers in the garment industry. But these shops offer rates so low that employees may average as little as $1.50 an hour for a 50-hour week, instead of the legal $3.35 hourly minimum and a 40 -hour week.