"Sweatshop" - Merle Linda Wolin - Los Angeles Herald-Examiner
It was almost 5 P.M. on a Tuesday when I stepped out of the elevator onto the factory room floor. I stood quietly, looking anxiously to both sides of the now empty sewing shop. Near the entrance, a dark-haired man in a white t-shirt stood working at a long, wooden table piled high with red cloth. His name: Oscar Herrera, owner of the shop. Late afternoon light filtered through the rows of sooty windows that formed one entire wall of the large production room. He motioned for me. "Venga venga! Come here!" he said in Spanish. "What are you looking for?" "Busco trabajo. I am looking for work," I said nervously. "Do you know how to sew?" he countered. I nodded yes, not wanting to lie outright. He told me they had work and that if I could make this jacket - he walked over to a rack of clothes and held up a white blazer - and this dress - he held up a short-sleeved red one - I could have a job.
I was beginning my second odyssey into the $35 billion California germent industry, another weekling, nine-hour-a-day journey into the underworld of fancy clothes and high style. I knocked on the wooden door behind the grate at 331 N. Mountain View in Los Angeles. Just when I thought no one would answer, a small, thin, dark-eyed man slowly opened the door. He was Felix Mendoza, a Mexican-born sewing contractor who had been in business for only six months. "I'm looking for work," I said in Spanish through the bars. "Can you sew?" he asked. It was his only question.
The Los Angeles Country Health Department found Felix Mendoza's shop a full month before I knocked on the door looking for work there. Since October 1979, when a county ordinance mandated the Health Department to locate and license the estimated 3,000 sewing shops in Los Angeles County, health officials have been trying to clean up what Richard Dinnerline, L.A. county chief of occupational health, called "the filthiest of all industries." According the the Health Department's Dec. 30 1980 figures, 2,746 garment factories have been found and licenced in the past year. Health officials believe there are hundreds more, especially in outlying areas of the county where immigrant workers often live.
No one seemed to know how much garment industry homework is done in Los Angeles. And I had no idea how work illegally filters down to homes from the contractors or manufacturers. So at the end of May, I decided to find out on the streets. I had a few preconcieved notions about homework. In the Mendoza shop where I worked in early May, I witnessed trusted sewing machine operators carry out unfinished blouses stuffed in large, green plastic garbage bags, presumably to be finished later at home. For nine days, from 8 AM to 5 PM, I walked the residential streets of the city, from Central Los Angeles to Sunland in the north, to Wilmington, the "Heart of the Harbor," to El Monte on the east. I chose streets where it seemed working-class and poor people lived; man neighborhoods were largely Spanish-speaking.
Make no mistake about the quality of the operation over at the union-organized Ernst Strauss Inc. The shop, maker of very expensive, fine-quality women's suits and coats, is considered the best in Los Angeles. Ask garment industry leaders, union officals, ask the owners themselves. "The pay is the highest in California - maybe the country," said one owner. "The workers are so loyal you couldn't beat them away. " said another. "It's a union shop," explained someone from the International Ladie's Garment Worker's Union. "A 30-year member. Everything is done right." But "right in the undisputed best shop in town is a relative term. On June 12, a Thursday, I went to work as a sewing machine operator in Ernst Strauss factory. As before, I posed as a poor, illegal brazillian germent worker. I no speak English. Espanol, por favor.
VI-"Merlina faces the labor commissioner - and wins" - Merle Linda Wolin - Los Angeles Herald-Examiner
The offices of the state labor commissioner, on the fifth floor at 107 S. Broadway, are painted hospital green and off white, a no-nonsense kind of place. In the large, rectangular shaped entry room, clerks stand behind an old, built-in wooden counter that divides the space into offices and a waiting room. That day, nearly everyone in the waiting room was either black or spoke Spanish. I never would have complained to the Labor Commission had I not know that what happened to me at Ernst Strauss Inc. happens to garment workers every day. Labor Department officials believe that many employers regularly refuse to pay but because the workers are largely undocumented - an estimated 90 percent of them in Los Angeles are here without papers- they get away with it.
VII-"'I"m not Joan of Arc. I'm a garment manufacturer.'" - Merle Linda Wolin - Los Angeles Herald-Examiner
To hear wealthy dress manufacturers Richard Freedman and Lowell Meyer talk, you would think that single-handedly they overcame the recession and every other obstacle in a competitive business, to put their firm on top. Listening to smooth-talking women's sportswear manufacturer Warren Handler talk, you would think that all it took for him to succeed was good design and lots of hard work. And I might have believed them, all of them - had I not been demeaned and exploited as a worker in one of their contractor's unhealthful shops. Or had I not know about the manufacturers' sanctioned edge over everyone else in the Los Angeles germent industry.
The manufacturers' response to knowing I worked on their garments seemed miled to the way Oscar and Martha Herrera greeted the news that I was a journalist, not a Brazillian garment worker. The first time I entered the shop as a newspaper reporter, one sunny Tuesday afternoon, the Herrera's responded to me cooly but politely. Oscar stood over the mangle, swiftly arranging the blue trousers on the roller before he lowered the steaming top. As I approached, he looked up with a puzzled expression on his face. Some of the other workers that had befriended me when I worked in the shop came forward, like Sergio from Guatemala. He recognized me immediately and smiled. He knew something was up.
Felix Mendoza is the first to admit that he should go out of business. No excuses. No bitterness. He says there is hardly a chance to make a go of it as a garment contractor in Los Angeles. You remember Mendoza. He was the slightly built man who thought I was another poor illegal and gave me a job in his small and dank sewing factory near Central Los Angeles. His shop was filthy, nightmarish. And for a full week's work, I earned a pitiful $38.74
X-"Employer Meets Employer—Merlina, Melton, Mendoza" - Merle Linda Wolin - Los Angeles Herald-Examiner
The only manufacturer who agreed to prove publicly that he paid a fair price to his contractors was Linwood Melton. When we met, Melton was the president of High Tide Swimwear, the $7.1 million subsidiary of Warnaco Inc., maker of such brand names as White Stag, Hathaway Shirts, and Warner's Intimate Apparel. Warnaco Inc., one of the largest apparel conglomerates in the United States, recently liquidated its HIgh Tide division because, according to one of its Connecticut corporate exacutives, "its relatively small volume was not compatible with the rest of the business." Melton is no longer with Warnaco.
If Linwood Melton was a good example of a manufacturer insinuated from the exploitation of the industry, Norman Blomberg, the president of Sauci Inc., an $8 million budget-blouse company, was someone who seemed to know the story. "So it's a horrifying business. What's new?" Blomberg said when I told him the conditions under which I worked on his rose-and-cream-colored short-sleeved blouse at Felix Mendoza's shop. He seemed sure of himself, a man with arough exterior.
Talk to major retailers in Los Angeles, the impeccably dressed corporate executives who reap grand profits from selling high fashion and style, and they will completely disavow the problems of the garment industry. But talk to labor commission officials or even spokesmen from various contractors' or manufacturers associations, and they will tell you that until big retailers agree to accept responsibility for their part in perpetuating flagrant labor and health code violations, the industry will continue to be "the dirtiest in the state."
XIII-"Who are the players? What are the problems?" - Merle Linda Wolin - Los Angeles Herald-Examiner
What stands in the way of cleaning up California's rapidly growing $3.5 billion garment industry, centered in Los Angeles and officially recognized as "the dirtiest in the state"? After an intensive eight-month investigation, which included a month's undercover work posing as an illegal garment worker, the Herald Examiner discovered that the garment industry's major problems revolve around the manufacturers, not the contractors. These people, the manufacturers, control the purse strings of the industry yet are not held legally accountable for the health and labor conditions under which their garments are made.
As far as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley is concerned, the violations in the city's garment industry are nothing to get excited about - a belief his critics charge is part of the problem. "The mayor's office does virtually nothing to enforce the laws 0that apply to the garment industry)," said state Sen Joseph B Montoya, D-San Gabriel Valley, the legislator best known in Sacra-mento for his efforts to legally protect the garment worker. "He showed interest only where there was a media event. Why? There's a lot of money involved, a lot of contributions. You don't want to hamper your political campaign fund, That's what it boils down to." "It's kind of lonely out here," said state Labor Commissioner James Quillin who, as head of California's Concentrated Enforcement Program, tries to curb abuses in the garment industry. "The (city) Fire Department and the (city) Building and Safety Department ought to be out here... but Bradley will talk about his reluctance to take any steps that might be construed as punitive agaist the industry. He'll say it is such an economic factor in the city." Surprisingly, even manufactur-ers complain about the mayor, citing his reluctance to impose requirements on contractors beyond a $21 business tax and registration permit. "I asked Mayor Bradley if there would be something these people (garment contractors) could read in five languages that would explain what their obligations are as employers," said Bernie Brown, the spokesman for California's Coalition of Apparel Industries, the most powerful manufacturers' lobby in the state. "I never heard from him. No one has the answer yet."
XV-"Brown: 'It's wrong for a civilized society...'" - Merle Linda Wolin - Los Angeles Herald Examiner
From the beginning of the conversation, it was clear that Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. knew little about the machinations of the state's $3.5 billion garment industry. But he seemed eager to learn. "What's going on in this industry?" he asked at the beginning of the interview. "Do the laws work to protect the workers? Is everyone making minimum wage? Who is responsibile for the violations?" I told him my story about rampant labor and health code abuses. He seemed slightly incredulous. Could this still be going on in California? And then he appeared upset to hear that a bill recently signed into law would not solve the problem. "Why couldn't my people get manufacturers held jointly liable with contractors for all the violations?" he asked indignantly. Standing in the living room of his sparsely furnished home in Laurel Canyon, Brown reached for the telephone. Within moments, Don Vial, the director of California's Department of Industrial Regulations, and a member of Brown's governing Cabinet, was on the speakerphone. Now it was a three-way conversation.
Get a pencil and write it down: Without national legislations, there is little hope of cleaning up the California garment industry. Remember it and repeat it often. Few will argue with this conclusion. Not Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. - "it can't go on, this exploitation of the working poor. These people are working and contributing to the wealth of California, and their voice is not being heard. And since we can't seem to get at the heart of the problem in California's garment industry, a more comprehensive national approach must be taken." Not state Labor Commissioner James QUillin - "What we need is recognition at the federal level that the (U.S.) garment industry is a special case. We must develop federal legislation that would require close regulation and hold manufacturers accountable." Not state Sen. Joseph Montoya, D-San Gabriel Valley, the lawmaker who has sponsored the two most successful pieces of legislation affecting the industry since he took office in 1972 - "I would be willing to pursue the idea of federal legislation - it will serve everyone."
What Herald Examiner staff writer Merle Linda Wolin's "Sweatshop" expose has revealed (aside from sometimes inexcusable working conditions in the Los Angeles garment industry and the seeming governmental impotence in improving them) is one incontestable fact: Just as it took an awful lot of people to get the garment industry into the state of decay it is in, it is going to take an awful lot of people to get it out of trouble. Cleaning up our sweatshops will require that everyone - citizen groups, government agencies, and espeically the industry itself - pitch in as a team and help.