Geraldine Ferraro: Sweatshop Landlord

Long Hours, Low Pay, Rancid Conditions Are Commonplace at Senate Candidate's Building

The problems start with the working hours. Asked about the allegation in affidavits filed by the artists' co-op that the factories ''continue into the night until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m.,'' Sullivan replied: ''Is that a violation of the labor law?'' Neither Zaccaro nor Sullivan denied the charge in their court papers, consistent with Voice observations of nighttime plant activity.

Wing Lam, the head of the Chinese Staff Workers Association, which organizes garment workers, says ''there are no shifts'' in factories like this, meaning that workers who start at 8:30 a.m. may be there until the late-night closings. ''The landlord has a lot to do with it,'' maintains Lam, pointing out that landlords in the garment district ''frequently close by 7 p.m. and aren't open on Sundays.'' But in Chinatown, says Lam, ''landlords give the keys to the contractors,'' which tenants at the Zaccaro building say is precisely what Zaccaro does.

It is the combination of long hours and piecework pay, says Lam, that makes for sweatshops. While piecework pay is permitted under UNITE contracts, it is at rates that theoretically add up to the union's $7-an-hour average wage. Voice visits to most of the building's shops found piecework commonplace at below union rates.

In fact, two Chinese women with sewing experience retained by the Voice and sent to seek employment at the building were offered only piecework positions in conversations with bosses at shops on three floors. At a shop on the sixth floor, they were told they could make 85 cents a piece sewing button plackets and hems on jackets, a task that experienced labor organizers said would typically take 15 minutes (meaning the workers would make $3.40 an hour). On the fifth floor, they were offered $1 per pair of dress pants--another 15-to-20-minute job. The $4 an hour wage equivalent would be less than the $5.15 minimum wage. The women were told that there were no positions other than piecework available, and no overtime or weekend bonus pay.

On another occasion, a Voice reporter and interpreter who questioned a man cutting strings off shirts on the third floor on Sunday morning were told that he was paid five cents a piece. The man agreed that the pay was low, but shrugged: ''What can you do, though?'' Piecework pay, of course, means that any lunch or break time lowers earnings, leading workers to arrive in the morning with plastic bags filled with oranges and other snacks. Few were seen leaving for lunch.

Indeed, the building's hallways are strewn with orange peels, rotten bananas, and garbage. Vagrants were seen sleeping on the steps. Bathrooms are cramped and dirty, with no toilet paper, sinks, or windows. Metal gates cover door windows, and side windows are draped in sheets. The ventilation is so bad, and the odors and steam so overpowering, that many workers cover their noses and mouths with cloth all day.

City inspectors have cited the building in each of the last three years for ''total obstruction of exit doors'' with ''boxes and debris''--a violation the buildings department categorizes as of ''high severity.'' Zaccaro defaulted on a $400 fine for an egress violation on January 15, just 10 days after Ferraro announced for the Senate--in a speech that included a pitch for a higher minimum wage.

Research: Paul Cordasco and Jarrett Murphy

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