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America's factory workers: immigrants turn the shop floor into a `mini-UN'

The work rules at the Economy Color Card Company are printed in English and Spanish. But the company, which makes the swatch sample books that textile salesmen lug around, could have added others, such as Hindi, Creole, Portuguese, and Polish. Economy's managers estimate that 30 percent of its 900 workers don't speak English. As owner Don Ackerman will quickly tell you, the factory floor is changing. ``It's like a United Nations down here,'' he says.

This phenomenon is taking place nationally. Rex Hardesty, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO in Washington, says that ``there is a significant increase in the number of workers who consider English a second language.'' Mr. Hardesty notes that the labor-intensive apparel business in New York and Los Angeles has changed the most. ``It used to be very Jewish and female. Now it's female and Chicano.''

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On one Economy assembly line of 14 workers are legal immigrants from Colombia, Honduras, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, India, Haiti, Cuba, El Salvador, and Portugal.

Nearby are workers from Nicaragua, South Africa, Panama, Guyana, Mexico, Poland, Pakistan, and Czechoslovakia.

On yet another line where labels are glued by hand to fabric samples, women from India and Pakistan work together, wrapped in traditional saris. Some have caste marks on their foreheads and chat among themselves in Hindi. Department manager Sailesh Kadakia, originally from Bombay, speaks six different Indian dialects to communicate with them.

In California, shop floor foremen who can speak Malay, Tagalog (for Filipinos), Chinese, and Vietnamese to the workers, as well as Spanish, are not unusual. Norm England, co-owner of the Kiva Container Corporation in Buena Park, Calif., says the next supervisor his growing company will hire will be bilingual, as more than 50 percent of his workers don't speak any English at all. ``We have a Spanish-English dictionary and muddle through with pointing and sign language,'' he says.

The changing shop floor, says Audrey Freeman, an economist with the Conference Board in New York, is an indication that ``we are providing jobs to immigrants who came here for no other reason than to work.''

George Rocourt, an economist with Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Company in Baltimore, says that what is happening in the United States is similar to the situation in Europe when it was operating under full employment in the 1960s. ``The Europeans invited all the guest workers in to take the low-paying jobs,'' he explains.

But as the US economy grows and the unemployment rate shrinks, even immigrant laborers are getting scarce.

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To attract new workers, Dot Mandl, director of human resources at Economy, has contacted area churches, Haitian Advancement (a networking organization), local high schools, the New Jersey Employment Service, and the New Hope Skill Center.

She has also run ads in Ukrainian-, Russian-, German-, and Portuguese-language newspapers. One of her latest proposals is to design a poster for inner-city housing projects.

Although Economy says it has no difficulty meeting production deadlines, it faces a continual battle to find new workers because of a high turnover rate. Since last July, Ms. Mandl figures, the rate has been 30 percent.

Mandl says it is difficult to motivate the workers, even though ``they take direction well.'' One reason for motivation problems could be because their shop floor workers earn $3.76 an hour, barely above the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. After 45 days, they are eligible to join the United Paperworkers Union, which takes $15 a month in dues and provides Blue Cross Blue Shield coverage.

Mr. Ackerman says that cultural differences may also contribute to the high worker turnover rate. ``They may not realize the importance of coming in every day,'' he says.

Some of the workers say they have ambitions. Evelyn Mendoza, originally from Honduras, is going to night school to learn to be a cosmetologist. Through an interpreter, she says she hopes to own her own home. Fanny Tapia, a native of Ecuador and mother of four children, wants to ``study something short,'' but is vague on what that might be.

Few if any of the workers are taking courses in English. An Indian worker, Ranjan Paden, who speaks only her native Hindi, hopes to learn English by watching television.

``It doesn't surprise me that the workers are not learning English,'' says Alan Magazine, president of the Council on Competitiveness. ``I suspect people are scraping hard for a living, working long hours, trying to raise families. I'm not sure I would try to learn English, either.''

Over the short term, Mr. Magazine says, he believes this will be detrimental to the US as it competes in the world markets. ``We have to be able to train people properly,'' he says.

One recent problem relating to more advanced training, he says, is the difficulty that American engineering students are having understanding Asian professors. ``That is no small problem,'' he says.

But over the longer term, Magazine points out, the son and daughters of these immigrants will learn English in the school system, beginning the familiar chain of upwardly mobile immigrants.

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