Sweatshop Blues


Citizens asserting their constitutional right to assemble were met with a veritable NYPD fashion show this week. Kitty Yee, a 46-year-old garment worker from Rego Park, lost her job in mid November, when the recession-battered shop in Long Island City where she made uniforms for postal workers closed its doors. She came to 54th Street and Fifth Avenue to protest the use of sweatshop labor abroad by the Gap and companies like it.

Like everyone who ventured into militarized midtown this week, Yee, the members of UNITE local 23-25 with whom she came, and a thousand supporters found themselves instantly corralled behind barricades and dispersed over several blocks along the eastern side of the street. Police officers lined the glittering glass facades around them. The cops wore navy blue pants, stiff shirts, caps, shiny hats with gold bands, flak jackets, ankle-length raincoats, thick gloves, snappy windbreakers, and skinny ties as they urged those not inside the barricades to hustle down the Great Wealth Way, past the speeches about the injustices of sweatshop labor. The irony was that some of the NYPD’s uniforms are undoubtedly made by sweatshop labor.

NYPD gear is manufactured by a constellation of contractors and subcontractors scattered across the globe. Since companies traditionally have not been required to divulge their factory locations, it is almost impossible to say for sure where the uniforms are coming from. But UNITE uniforms coordinator Dan Hennefeld says non-union contractors such as Liberty Uniform Manufacturing Company and the massive, North Carolina-based apparel manufacturer VF Corp. raise alarms.

“VF is a company that sources products all over the world, including in countries where sweatshop conditions are frequently found,” Hennefeld says. “They produce in China, Bangkok, Caribbean basin countries, Pakistan. These are countries that companies don’t go to searching for good labor conditions.”

What may come as a surprise is that a law to ensure that uniforms are manufactured under good labor conditions has been on the books in New York City since April. Sponsored by former city council speaker Peter Vallone and passed over a Giuliani veto with broad union support, the measure declares that the city “should choose to allocate its purchasing dollars in order to enhance, rather than degrade, the economic and social wellbeing of people.”

To this end, the law mandates that contractors chasing the city’s lucrative $68 million-a-year uniform business pay their workers in the U.S. a “non-poverty” wage of “no less than $8.75 an hour, of which $7.50 must be paid in hourly wages,” and pay workers abroad a wage “sufficient to ensure that a family of three does not live in poverty.” They must comply with all health, labor, environmental, and safety laws.

Or they’d have to, that is, if city officials—including Comptroller William Thompson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, neither of whom returned calls—would start to enforce the law. Under the act, contractors must reveal their list of subcontractors to the comptroller and open themselves to independent inspections. Violators would have to pay a $5000 fine for false statements and face losing their contracts.

Some uniform companies aren’t eager to discuss the measure. After relaying the topic to her bosses, a woman at Leventhal said, “They do not want to talk about it.” A VF official stopped returning messages.

Liberty vice president Steven Robinson says his company sells $50,000 in jackets to the police department in a good year. The company manufactures 90 percent of its garments in South Carolina and Mexico, he says, abiding by local minimum wage laws, but because his partner oversees that side of the business, he could not provide details. He is the first to say he hates unions, with whom he says he had bad experiences doing contract work in Manhattan in the ’70s. He says the anti-sweatshop law is unenforceable.

“Every single company will say yes, they’re doing everything and that they’re positive,” says Robinson, speaking from his offices in Huntington, Long Island. “That’s bullshit. Literally you’re talking about Myanmar, which I learned was Burma two weeks ago, Pakistan, India, Africa, Russia, the deep bowels of China, you mean to tell me that people are going to monitor all that? No way. You physically can’t do it. You just have to assume that you’re dealing with reliable operations.”