In a campaign season that has been practically devoid of controversy, Queens Councilman and frontrunner for City Comptroller John Liu got into a spat with the Daily News this weekend over whether he really did work in a sweatshop as a child. On Saturday, The News ran a story with the headline: “City comptroller hopeful John Liu touts youth in sweatshop — only family says it never happened.”
In his televised campaign ads, Liu claims to have worked in sweatshops for ten years, starting at age 5. Over heavily emotional music and images of women hunched over machines in a crowded factory, a narrator says Liu “by seven had to work in a sweatshop to make
ends meet… Working in finance taught Liu how to account for every penny, but working in that sweatshop as a kid taught him why we need to.”
When a Daily News reporter questioned the veracity of Liu’s claim, the politician offered to take her to Flushing to meet people who could vouch for him. Twenty minutes later, Liu picked up the reporter, Erin Einhorn, in his car, and brought her to meet both his mother and the owner of the garment factory that employed her when she first came to the U.S., in the mid-seventies. Both the mother and the owner said that Liu didn’t really didn’t spend much time in the factory, and that his work was basically voluntary (allowance money, his father added).
After these meetings, the News noted that Liu was getting frustrated. “I’m just trying to prove that 10 years of my life were not my imagination,” he told Einhorn.
When the article came out, Liu quickly sent a rebuttal to his whole mailing list. He claimed the newspaper was practicing “gotcha journalism” and said his parents acted like they didn’t remember the experience because they were ashamed.
He wrote, “Not all sweatshops look like a scene from ‘Norma Rae’ or other Hollywood movies, with people toiling in neat rows in a factory setting. These factories do exist, but in addition, some sweatshops use overseas labor involving children as young as 6 years old. Others- including the one my mother worked in — combined factory hours with home-based piece work to maximize the exploitation and squeeze the
most out of workers: even after leaving the factory, the work never ends.”
To Liu’s credit, he was the one who candidly offered to take the reporter around. But from his rebuttal, it seems like Liu is admitting that he did work at home, though in a questionnaire he answered for the News, he claimed to have worked in the actual sweatshop. Which one was it? And he also never addresses why he didn’t bring up his past in a sweatshop in previous campaigns.
Liu also said the reporter started to become suspicious when he could not produce a pay stub, which, if true, does seem silly (how many manual laborers keep pay stubs from ten years ago?). And, as Liu pointed out, it’s not like sweatshops are on-the-books operations that issue proof of hours worked.
Liu is in a tight race with fellow councilmember Melinda Katz.