Our labor legacy commands us to fight sweatshops

On March 25, 1911, the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in a New York City sweatshop claimed the lives of 146 people. The doomed workers, almost all of whom were Jewish women and young girls, were trapped in an unsafe building with no sprinkler system and locked fire exits.

1n 1911, firefighters' ladders reached only as high as the sixth story. Most of those who died had desperately tried to save themselves by jumping through windows to the street 10 floors below. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire led to major reforms in working conditions and labor standards in the garment industry, and to stricter regulation and enforcement of municipal fire and safety codes.

Today most people assume that the conditions leading to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire no longer exist. But only a year ago, the public was scandalized to learn that a line of clothes sold under entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford's name was produced by sweatshop labor in the United States and abroad.

The working conditions were unsafe, the hours were long, the pay was far below minimum wage and the workers received none of the health and welfare benefits that most of us take for granted.

Gifford has tried to make amends. But this was a stark reminder that sweatshops are not merely a historical artifact.

Half of all the clothing sold in this country today is produced in sweatshops.

Just what is a "sweatshop'' and what does the word mean? The term originated in the 19th century to describe a subcontracting system in which a middleman's profit was the difference between the amount received for a contract and the amount paid to workers subcontracted for manual labor. Workers at that time were paid so little that the small profits of the middlemen were said to have been "sweated'' from the workers who toiled in the most primitive and unsanitary conditions.

Sweatshops today are still characterized by violations of the most fundamental workers' rights codified in both U.S. and international labor law. These include the prohibition of child or compulsory labor, the freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively. Sweatshop workers generally receive wages far below what they need to feed, clothe, shelter and educate a family at a subsistence level. Their workday is generally far longer than allowed by law and overtime pay is nonexistent.

*Fact: The average Jewish sweatshop employee in 1911 worked 57 hours per week. The average sweatshop employee in the 1990s works 54 hours per week.

One facet of the new global economy is that companies are again engaging in this oppressive form of production. As communication, transportation and the ability to transfer capital have become quicker and less expensive, companies have begun farming out production to domestic immigrant sweatshops or to sweatshops abroad.

For instance, Guess? Inc. is moving much of its U.S. manufacturing to Mexico — ironically, to escape allegations of unfair labor practices. While management says the move is merely a "commercial decision," the National Labor Relations Board has in the past found Guess? guilty of unfair labor practices and as recently as July 16 and 17 of this year, California Labor Department officials uncovered a string of illegal industrial homework operations used by the company's contractors.

*Fact: The average sweatshop employee earns only 1 to 2 percent of the final sale price of a garment sold in the United States.

Recently, the Alfred Angelo Company, a manufacturer of bridal and women's formalwear, closed its Philadelphia factories in order to begin contracting out its manufacturing operation to Guatemalan sweatshop factories, where children as young as 14 are working up to 11 hours per day and earning as little as $20 per week — far less than Guatemala's minimum wage.

The blue-collar sector is not the only site of sweatshop labor. As corporations downsize, their managerial ranks have been significantly thinned and we now see the advent of widespread use of temporary workers and white-collar piecework. Former corporate middle managers are now forced to compete on a project-by-project basis as "consultants.'' They have also lost the benefits and protections that full-time workers in the corporation receive. They, too, work in the sweatshop, albeit the white-collar cybersweatshop.

What can be done? The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act protects U.S. workers by setting the federal minimum wage and requiring overtime pay after 40 hours in a workweek, and prohibits child labor and industrial homework. Now a new piece of legislation, the Stop Sweatshops Act of 1997 (S. 626/H.R. 23), has been proposed in Congress by Reps. William Clay (R-Mo.) and Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.).

Written specifically with the garment industry in mind, the Stop Sweatshops Act would strengthen the Department of Labor's enforcement powers. It would also provide greater protections for workers when employers violate the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Stop Sweatshops Act has three key provisions. It amends the Fair Labor Standards Act to make manufacturers liable for civil damages incurred by their contractors' violations of its minimum wage, overtime, child labor and industrial homework provisions.

Contractors would be required to keep complete payroll records: Failure to do so would make them liable for additional civil monetary damages. Manufacturers would be held liable to their contractors' employees for such labor-law violations as unpaid wages and overtime.

This legislation is supported by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Labor Committee and other Jewish communal agencies. But passage of this legislation requires grassroots support. As of this writing, almost 50 representatives have co-sponsored the legislation. We need to demand that our representatives in Washington lend their support.

We can also urge our state and municipal officials to pass legislation prohibiting governmental bodies from purchasing products made with sweatshop labor.

On this Labor Day, we have much to contemplate. Jewish workers, whose lives reflected Judaism's social-justice imperative, played a significant role in advancing the rights of all U.S. workers.

Today, there is renewed reason for concern. The same horrific working conditions that impelled Jews to act in 1911 should spur us to action today. Jewish values do not diminish with time or apply only to our treatment of fellow Jews.