NEW YORK—Armed with tags and a confiscation order, the New York State Department of Labor descended upon a Forest Uniform Company contractor Tuesday night without warning. Members of the Department's Apparel Industry Task Force tagged all the garments and equipment in the factory—tags that are to be removed only by the Labor Department and only when the company pays their workers' back wages.
It is the first time the State has acted upon the 2006 law that allows them to stop a garment manufacturer's operations should it violate labor laws more than twice in three years. With this action, Labor Department Commissioner M. Patricia Smith is hoping to a send a warning to other sweatshop operators who have been continuously disregarding labor laws, she said at a press conference Wednesday.
Forest Uniform Company, also called Suburban Textiles Inc., contracts its manufacturing to Technical Garment USA Co., Inc. The contractor was formerly known as Devine Fashion Corp. and Opus Fashion Corp. and has not been registered with the State as required by law. Manufacturers of apparel and their contractors are required to register each year and disclose the number of workers, proof of wages paid, hours worked, and the contact information of the shop's owners and partners. This law, enacted in 1986, is meant to prevent sweatshop owners from “hiding and avoiding liabilities,” said Smith. In the ‘80s, it was common practice for sweatshop owners to shut down and leave without paying their workers, according to Smith.
In April 2007, Forest Uniform Company was found to be in violation of the registration law. Three weeks after being issued the violation, it was issued another for failing to correct the offense. In November that year, they were issued a violation for failing to keep record of payroll. On April 13, it was found again to not have registered with the State.
Smith's frustration was apparent. “I've been making the point clear in the two years I've been commissioner, but they keep thumbing their noses and ignoring the law,” she said.
Technical Garment USA is owned by husband-and-wife team Andres Ortiz and Mindy Wong. Labor investigators revealed that Ortiz and Wong were keeping two sets of time cards for their workers; one real, one fake. Then they did away with the time cards and simply recorded overtime hours—which reached up to 80 hours a week—in a notebook kept in their desk. Witnesses also said that employees were coached to lie to investigators about their working conditions, and were threatened with termination if they told the truth.
Because their official records show hours and wages within State standards, it's hard for the Labor Department to know that anything's wrong. When the documents are false, “we really need someone to come forward,” Smith said. Because of the common practice among garment manufacturers to contract out their work, it's hard for buyers to know for sure where the items are produced. Forest Uniform's products have been purchased by NYPD officers, as authorized by the police department. The Labor Department has asked the NYPD to remove the manufacturer from its authorized seller list.
To date, 16 workers at Technical Garment USA are owed an estimate of almost $500,000 in back wages and damages.
A database of garment manufacturers registered with the State is available at http://www.labor.state.ny.us/workerprotection/laborstandards/workprot/ApparelRpt1.asp