Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

Los Angeles-area garment industry workers are losing millions of dollars a year in unpaid wages due to widespread labor violations by employers, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.

During fiscal year 2014, the department’s Wage and Hour Division conducted 221 investigations of employers in this industry, almost all in and around Los Angeles, and found more than $3 million in unpaid wages for about 1,550 workers.

The division said that amounted to an average of $1,900 per worker, which is five times the amount a typical sewing machine operator earns in a week.

“Fierce competition in the garment industry leads many contract shops to lower the cost of their services, frequently at the expense of workers’ wages,” said Dr. David Weil, administrator for the Wage and Hour Division. “When workers don’t receive the wages to which they are legally entitled, they can’t afford the basics like food, rent and child care.”

Weil said the division is engaging in strategic enforcement efforts, such as directed investigations and identifying supply chains to combat what he calls a “race-to-the-bottom culture,” which imposes an unnecessary hardship on people who are trying to support themselves and their families.

“We will uphold the American promise of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” he said.

According to the division, minimum wage and overtime violations have historically been high in the garment industry. Investigators have found violations in 89 percent of more than 1,600 cases in Southern California since 2009, leading to more than $15 million in recovered back wages for nearly 12,000 workers.

The apparel industry typically employs large populations of immigrants with limited English language proficiency who are unaware of their rights or are reluctant to speak up. This makes them particularly vulnerable to labor violations, Weil said.

“We are committed to strong enforcement and providing educational workshops for employers, yet we continue to find significant problems in this industry,” said Ruben Rosalez, regional administrator for the Wage and Hour Division’s western region. “We are using a variety of strategies to better protect workers and level the playing field for law-abiding businesses.”

According to Rosalez, the division has stepped up surveillance of establishments and deployed more multilingual investigators in the last several years.

He also said that the agency is working with the department’s Office of the Solicitor to obtain liquidated damages as a remedy for workers.

The division may also assess civil money penalties when employers are found to be repeat or willful offenders and, Rosalez said, the agency is addressing supply chains by using agreements to ensure compliance with minimum wage and overtime rules by having manufacturers monitor their contractors.

City News Service

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