Tuesday, 7 November 2006

5 Sweatshop Garment Factories Shut Down in San Francisco

BAY AREA 5 garment factories closed by state's new task force Coalition's sweep focused on unfair labor practices Five Bay Area garment factories were shut down and cited for allegedly violating state labor laws in a statewide sweep through 18 garment businesses Tuesday and Wednesday. The factories that were shut down saw their completed products confiscated by the Economic and Employment Enforcement Coalition, a new task force of state agencies. By Wednesday afternoon, the 50 normally whirring and clicking sewing machines had fallen silent at Sunrise K. Co., in the 900 block of Mission Street in San Francisco. The quiet was interrupted only by the rattling of mahjong tiles as some employees, hoping they would be able to work again, passed the time. Coalition members said most of the violators -- including some that might be operating under sweatshop conditions -- are in Southern California. "I wouldn't say sweatshops are nonexistent (in the Bay Area), but it's a small number," said Deanne Amaden, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor. "It doesn't mean there aren't shops not in compliance. That's the reason we're looking for them now. Typically, it hasn't been as big a problem here as it has been in Los Angeles." Dean Fryer, spokesman for the State Labor Commission, said Bay Area garment factories numbered only in the hundreds, while there are thousands in Southern California. Only a fraction of factories in California operate as sweatshops, cramming workers into unsafe quarters, paying below minimum wage or violating other laws. The coalition consists of the state's Department of Industrial Relations Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, the Employment Development Department and the Contractors State License Board. The group, which premiered this week partly in commemoration of a raid 10 years ago that broke up a major sweatshop ring in Southern California, plans to work with the U.S. Department of Labor and other state and local agencies to conduct sweeps. On Aug. 2, 1995, state and federal agents found more than 70 Thai immigrants working in slavelike conditions in an El Monte (Los Angeles County) house. They worked 16-hour days seven days a week and lived 10 or more to a room, with no air conditioning. "That case really shed light and brought focus to the problem," Fryer said. "Ten years later, we've come to see how things have changed, what problems remain." The coalition dispatched three teams throughout the Bay Area this week to factories that appeared to be violating labor laws. Some had not filed documents called "certificates of registration" with the state, and others didn't have proof of workers' compensation insurance. In coming months, the coalition will focus on other industries historically plagued by unfair labor practices such as farming, construction and the restaurant business. The coalition didn't expect to find sweatshops among the businesses it targeted Wednesday, said Fryer. But it interviewed employees to make sure their employers abided by labor laws. Employees were asked whether they received at least the minimum wage, were paid overtime when it was due and received meal breaks as required by law. Investigators also scrutinized the companies' payroll records. Typical of the five companies that were cited, Sunrise K. Co. had been operating without state permission since July 18. The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement won't renew its operating certificate because the company owes back federal taxes of 20,000. Company owner Fion Lok was fined 2,700 for operating without the certificate. Lok asked for an extension as authorities seized about 500 finished pieces of clothing from her factory. "I wasn't given enough time to fix the license issue," Lok said through an interpreter. But Donna Dell, labor commissioner and chief of the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, said the company had 90 days' notice before its registration expired. Dell said Lok could appeal the citation and closure. The merchandise investigators confiscated this week will be held by the state for at least 60 days. If the companies don't come into compliance, it will be donated to a clearinghouse that will disperse the clothing to nonprofits. E-mail Cicero A. Estrella at cestrella@sfchronicle.com.

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