Holding Retailers Accountable
Thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean lie a chain of fourteen islands called the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. On the main island of Saipan, a garment industry has been booming since the 1980s. Over 30 garment factories employ more than 10,000 workers, almost all young women from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh and other Asian countries. Saipan''s $1 billion garment industry has been plagued with media exposes of slave-like conditions and forced abortions. Government reports have documented food poisonings and millions of dollars in unpaid wages. In 1999, former and current garment workers, together with Sweatshop Watch, the Asian Law Caucus, Global Exchange and UNITE, filed three separate lawsuits against top U.S. clothing companies to clean up the rampant sweatshop abuses in Saipan. In September 2002, after more than three years of hard-fought litigation, 26 of America''s biggest clothing retailers and 23 garment manufacturers reached a landmark settlement in the Saipan sweatshop lawsuits. In April 2003, the settlement received final court approval, creating a $20 million fund to pay back wages to 30,000 workers and develop an independent monitoring system to ensure compliance with strict labor standards and an end to sweatshop abuse. The 26 settling retailers are: Abercrombie & Fitch, Brooks Brothers, Brylane L.P, .Calvin Klein Inc., Cutter & Buck, Inc, Donna Karan International, Dress Barn Gap, Inc. (Banana Republic, Old Navy), The Gymboree Corp, J.C. Penney Company, Inc., J. Crew Group, Inc, Jones Apparel Group, Lane Bryant, Inc., The Limited, Inc., Liz Claiborne Inc.,The May Department Stores Company, Nordstrom, Inc., Oshkosh B''Gosh Inc.,Phillips-Van Heusen, Polo Ralph Lauren, Sears Roebuck and Company Talbots, Inc., Target Corp. (Target, Mervyn''s, Marshall Fields, Dayton-Hudson), Tommy Hilfiger USA Inc., Warnaco, Inc. and Woolrich, Inc.
In the summer of 2001, bebe, a high-end women''s clothing retailer, was caught using sweatshop labor in the production of their garments near Los Angeles. Bebe is a large and growing multi-million dollar chain, with 170 stores in the U.S. and Canada. bebe takes pride in their cutting-edge image and their mission "to satisfy the fashion needs of the modern, sexy and sophisticated woman." Yet, the reality behind their "sexy" image is harsh exploitation of the immigrant women who sewed their clothes. In fact, twelve Chinese garment workers in Los Angeles have filed two separate lawsuits against bebe. They filed the lawsuits for unpaid minimum wage and overtime as well as retaliatory firing. These workers were forced to work at least six days a week and faced humiliation at the worksite. They were fired and blacklisted for standing up for their workplace rights. "We sewed only Bebe clothes and Bebe was in the factory every single day," said the workers. "There''s no question in our minds that Bebe was responsible for the conditions under which we worked." Sweatshop Watch launched a public action campaign against bebe with garment workers, students and community supporters. Our protests and information flyering outside of bebe stores; our letter writing to bebe''s CEO; and our extensive public education effort is cramping bebe''s style. We will continue to support the workers until they receive justice from bebe.
Protecting Workers'' Rights
Beginning in the Spring of 2001, over 250 garment workers, mostly monolingual Chinese immigrant women, labored for months without any pay at all and were owed nearly $1 million in back wages. They were employed by three related factories in San Francisco-Wins of California, Win Fashion, and Win Industries of America, all owned & operated by Anna Wong, her husband Toha "Jimmy"
Quan and her sister Jenny Wong. By July 2001, Win Fashion closed its doors, filing for bankruptcy and laying off all its workers. In August 2001, Sweatshop Watch helped expose the sweatshop abuses with a front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Within days, the California Labor Commissioner shut down the other two factories for operating illegally, without a license; and a coalition of groups formed to assist the workers. With support from the Chinese Progressive Association, Sweatshop Watch, the Women''s Employment Rights Clinic of Golden Gate University School of Law and the Asian Law Caucus, the workers organized for their back wages by holding protests, meeting with policy makers and educating the public about their plight. In October 2002, the Wins workers finally received nearly $1 million in back wages from the California Labor Commissioner. The wages were paid from a special state fund for garment workers, which is financed by licensing fees of California garment contractors and manufacturers. Our advocacy efforts will hopefully improve the government''s handling of future cases of immigrant workers. "This is only the beginning of our victory. Now we must push for prosecution of the [sweatshop] owners," said one of the workers, who bravely filed a lawsuit against her former bosses to collect additional monies due to the workers.
In the Fall of 2000, Sweatshop Watch teamed up with Vietnam Labor Watch to assist over 200 Vietnamese and Chinese guest workers who labored in a sweatshop on American Samoa. These young women faced slave-like conditions, beatings and near starvation, while producing clothes for major U.S. retailers like J.C. Penney and Sears. Our advocacy and media work resulted in government action and justice for the workers. The U.S. Department of Labor initiated an investigation of the workers'' case and collected over $350,000 of workers'' back wages from J.C. Penney. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the factory $78,500 for 28 alleged health and safety violations. The U.S. Department of Justice granted some of the workers a new trafficking visa, so that they may stay in the mainland U.S. In February 2002, a federal judge found the owner of the Daewoosa Samoa garment factory guilty of abusing the Vietnamese and Chinese workers, marking an important victory against human trafficking and sweatshop labor.
After nearly ten years of advocacy for corporate accountability in the garment industry, Sweatshop Watch succeeded in passing the strongest garment worker legislation in the nation. Under California Assembly Bill 633 (AB 633), which was enacted in 2000, garment manufacturers are legally responsible for workers'' minimum wages and overtime compensation; and garment workers may claim these wages through an expedited administrative process before the state Labor Commissioner. Prior to this law, the corporations who profited the most from sweatshop labor shielded themselves from responsibility by using subcontractors, and California garment workers lost an estimated $80 million each year in unpaid wages. Since the law''s passage, Sweatshop Watch has played a lead role in educating California''s garment workers about their rights with multi-lingual materials and workshops. We have developed a Know Your Workplace Rights booklet, which describes garment workers'' basic workplace rights and the records they should keep, and provides a calendar to record information such as hours worked. We have also developed a comic book, How Anna Won Her Wages, which describes how to file a claim for back wages with the California Labor Commissioner. These materials have been distributed to thousands of garment workers across the state. Sweatshop Watch also coordinated public comments to the proposed garment regulations for implementing AB 633. Our efforts were successful in eliminating a huge loophole for garment manufacturers and retailers when the regulations were issued in October 2002.
In 2001, Sweatshop Watch helped form the Coalition of Immigrant Worker Advocates with the Garment Worker Center, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates and Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund. Through organizing and advocacy, we work together towards improving working conditions and increasing labor law enforcement in low-wage industries in the unregulated underground economy of Los Angeles. Recent court decisions, coupled with a heightened anti-immigrant climate are deterring undocumented workers from asserting their rights. The Coalition succeeded in urging California labor officials to publicly reaffirm its policy of enforcing labor laws for all workers, regardless of their immigration status. The Coalition also succeeded in creating the Low Wage Industries Office as a component of California''s new Labor and Workforce Development Agency. This office will begin working in various low wage industries to address concerns of immigrant and other low wage workers.