Sewing Discontent Cut-rate Wages in the Dallas Apparel Underground BY DICK J. REAVIS Dallas ITALIAN-AMERICAN designer Victor Costa, the leading name in Dallas fashion, has made his reputation by designing party dresses with an ultra-feminine flair couture with puffy sleeves, fox-trimmed hems, and names like “Flourish of Ruffles.” Costa’s clientele includes the provincial, conservative and famousfolk like Mary Kay Ash, Laura Bush, Nancy Brinker, and Marilyn Quayle. It is a rock-ribbed, familyvalues set of women, the sort who preach law and order, tell kids to just say no, and extol the promise of the American Dream. They are attracted to Costa’s gowns because of their value; skillful knockoffs of European haute design, Costas sell for a mere $300 to $1,000 apiece. Such women would surely be startled to learn something else about the glamorous Costas in which they grace high society’s balls that they were made in violation of U.S. labor law, by an almost-invisible class of Asian immigrants who barely earn enough to contemplate the prosperity in which Costa’s clients thrive. Dallas’ garment industry is a foundation of the city’s economy large, glitzy, and immensely respectable. But today it leads a clandestine double life based on dodging taxes and cheating immigrants. VAN TRUONG for reasons that will become apparent, the names of the Truongs and certain other identifying details have been changed is a 61-year-old Vietnamese who came to the United States as a political refugee in 1979.Today he and his family wife Thi, 51, son Nick, 16, and daughter Kim, 14 rent a two-bedroom apartment in a complex on the east side of Harry Hines Boulevard. But 100 other families are their neighbors, the Truongs are known to them only as “the Chinamen.” The family does not join the tenants who, many in the uniforms of menials, flow out of the building by morning and return at sundown each day. They shy away from the banter in hallways, parking lots, laundry rooms and patios. And they do not answer the door when unknown callers knock. Dick .1. Reavis is a staff writer for the Dallas Observer, in which this appeared in November 1992. It won a Headliner’s Award for 1992. Their only regular visitor is a thin, leatherskinned Vietnamese of Chinese extraction, whom the apartment’s guards and managers know as Mr. Lee. When Mr. Lee comes, he usually carries a box under his arm. Unknown to the non-Vietnamese residents of the complex, Mr. Lee is responsible for the low, on-again, off-again hum that sleepless neighbors sometimes hear in the wee hours of morning, when the usual din of television sets has faded from the halls. The hum tells the secret of the Truongs’ isolation, but it takes acute hearing to decipher what it says. The Truongs’ Dallas apartment like thousands of others in which East Asians live is a center of illegal activity. The Truongs aren’t cooking hashish, or packaging cocaine, or concocting exotic Oriental aphrodisiacs. In fact, if the neighbors could take a look into the boxes that Mr. Lee brings and takes away from the Truongs, they’d find that the furtive Vietnamese are not doing anything morally reprehensible at all. But that’s just the problem, as the Truongs see it: If the neighbors knew, they would innocently blab, and in the capricious, and essentially inscrutable New World in which they now live, who knows where that might lead? The Truongs hide from their neighbors, from the authorities, and in an important way, from the experience of American life, because they make their living by sewing together pieces of women’s clothes and doing that at home is illegal in the United States. VICTOR COSTA and the Truongs exist not merely in separate worlds, but at opposite ends of a winding labor chain that today produces most women’s garments manufactured in Dallas and much of America. They are linked not only by their shared economic enterprise, but in their collaborative violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA a venerable, if neglected, chapter of federal law whose concern is not so much how or where work is performed, as what those who perform it are paid. Some 8,000 to 25,000 home sewers nobody knows their number for sure labor in the ladies apparel industry in the DallasFort Worth area, at the behest of some 200 or more sewing contractors. The contractors are a quiet and profitable link between nationally-known manufacturers and the struggling immigrants who stitch together their clothes. By serving as secret middlemen,the contractors allow manufacturers like Costa to turn a blind eye to the labor conditions that exist to serve their needs. Over the past 15 years, the contractors and their home-sewers, mainly Vietnamese and Korean immigrants, have displaced nearly 10,000 factory workers, supervisors and whitecollar auxiliaries in greater Dallas, and perhaps as many as 20,000 in the larger region. In violation of a half-dozen laws, they have also deprived local, state and federal governments of Social Security, unemployment, withholding and property tax revenues. The home-sewing business is so well-hidden that neither the U. S. Commerce Department nor the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce can provide an estimate of its size, and the American Apparel Manufacturing Association which represents the clothing makers acts as though it doesn’t exist. Even in the absence of estimates, it’s clear that this industrial underground dodges millions of dollars in government payments each year money that other taxpayers must make up. Yet a half century after home sewing was banned, state and federal regulators seem unlikely to do much about it. The reason: Home sewers, by providing cheap labor, help U.S. apparel manufactures survive against foreign competition and the American garment industry wields enormous political clout. The United States first established a legal wage . currently pegged at $4.25 an hour when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The FLSA also requires employers to keep payroll records, bans child labor and sets forth a minimum time-and-a-half rate for overtime pay. But almost immediately after it went into effect, Labor Department sleuths discovered that the FLSA was unenforceable in homework settings. After a series of investigations and hearings, in 1943 the Department banned industrial homework in seven industries, including ladies “ready-to-wear” or offthe-rack, clothing. Home-sewing was not banned in the men’s wear trade because in that field the prohibition wasn’t necessary. Then, as now, men’s fashion, trends allowed far more standardization fewer different types of garments, in fewer styles. Men’s clothing thus lent itself more to mass production techniques, and manufacturing was carried out in plants, whose locations were readily known and 14. MAY 7, 1993
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