FEBRUARY 2003

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Garment Factory Owes Nearly Half A Million In Back Wages
From Singtao Chinese Daily
January 17, 2003

As part of an ongoing struggle to collect months of hard-earned, but unpaid, back pay, approximately 150 garment workers and their supporters braved the frigid weather and congregated before New York's Southern District Federal Courthouse downtown at 9 a.m. yesterday to demonstrate, [just a short while before their case was to be heard].

Chanting such phrases as "give me back my blood and sweat money", "we want justice", and "down with sweatshops", they hoped to make the judges inside aware of their deep frustration.

Among those present to support the workers was Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who ridiculed the United States for failing to act upon its own proclaimed respect for human rights. It is not easy for a country to admit that human rights abuses occur within its borders, and in this case, she add, it is not Taiwan, not mainland China, and not Cuba that is in violation, but the United States. She then urged the workers of the 103 Factory of East Broadway to not be afraid, because reason was on their side. She said she would fight to guarantee labor rights in Congress, and bring an end to sweatshops by encouraging consumers to avoid purchasing their products.

Earning Big Bucks Yet Refusing To Compensate Workers

A representative for the workers of East Broadway's 103 Factory, Li Meiying, explained that the problem began in 1999, when the factory manager owed 30 to 40 workers four months of pay. His excuse was that the factory's distributing firm, "Liberty," had not yet advanced him the funds. When further pressed, he paid the workers small amounts, and in this manner the sum owed climbed into the hundreds of thousands of dollars (as reported, their due was about $120,000, and when overtime was included, amounted to nearly $500,000). At this point he closed the factory and moved to another state.

The workers would wake up in the dark, pre-dawn hours, and spend the day working in a frenzy to fill ever-pressing garment orders. Working even in times of sickness, they toiled away, earning the big bucks for their boss. When they were not compensated as promised, the workers turned to the Chinese Workers Association for help. The aid and encouragement they received enabled them to organize themselves and launch a lawsuit against their former employer, and his distributor, Liberty. However, the judge found that the distributor was not their boss, and therefore not responsible for his debt to them, leading the workers to appeal to a higher court.

The director of the Chinese Workers Association, Lin Song, pointed out that though the 9/11 incident has affected all of Chinatown, the garment industry has suffered the most. Many factory workers have already lost their jobs, and to be owed months of back pay at a time like this is intolerable. This injustice prompted the association to intervene. Lin Song added that cases similar to that of the 103 Factory have occurred many times before, and that federal judge Cafy's pronouncement that Liberty was not responsible for the debt since it was not the party which directly hired the workers or dispensed their wages, was entirely ridiculous.

National Anti-Sweatshop Network director, Ruth [THE ONLY NAME THAT IS GIVEN], also appeared at the demonstration. She said that her mother was a garment worker, and would have understood the workers' frustration, that sweatshop labor is unfair and that it should have been abolished long ago. After voicing a range of messages, the hundred workers and a dozen accompanying Chinese and Western reporters filed into the Federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals to hear their case, filling the courtroom to capacity.

There are three presiding judges - Ralph K. Winter, Perre N. Leval, and Jose Cabranes. Attorney James Reif represents the workers. Yesterday, he began by clarifying why Liberty owes the 103 Factory workers the back wages; the distributor knowingly patronized an illegal sweatshop where non-English speaking immigrants labored more than 13 hours a day.

The Garment Merchant And The Production Process

The distributor plays a most important role in the manufacturing process, determining everything from the correct retail price to the fabric quality, from the presence of zippers to the shipping date.

To bolster the workers' case, State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has also drawn attention to the fact that the 103 Factory was in violation of New York State labor regulations; it did not pay minimum wage, did not draw up a contract with its employees, and did not offer a "one and a half" wage for overtime (even though practically all the plaintiffs worked beyond 40 hours a week).

Liberty's attorney, Michael Klein, explained why it was not his client's responsibility to remind the factory to fulfill its debt to the workers.

He said that the distributor was not directly responsible for the hiring of workers and had no real authority over how the factory conducted itself. It dutifully paid the factory after each order was filled; that the latter firm owed its employees back pay was not its affair. After the attorneys had made their statements, the appellate judges asked for further clarification on the relationship between the workers, the factory, and the distributor. A decision is expected to be reached in two to three months.

Translated From Chinese By Kelvin Wu

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