Page 9


MICHAEL ALEXANDER whose operations were readily subject to government audit and inspection. Women’s-wear production, by comparison, was a cottage craft. A 1942 Labor Department study justifying the women’s wear ban reported that of 430 homeworkers its investigators interviewed, only 30 percent were earning 35 cents an hour the minimum wage of the time. Most homework employers, the department’s study found, didn’t even keep payroll records. Furthermore, the nearly-forgotten document confessed, “if the employer chooses to omit names of homework employees from his payroll there is almost no effective means of check-up since the workers may be scattered through the city or the state. Even where the list of names is properly kept, there is no means of ascertaining how many persons in the family may have been actually engaged in the work.” Today’s Labor Department investigators say that times haven’t changed much in 50 years. “We have an industry here that has a significant number of non-compliance issues at hand,” summarizes Bill Belt, Wage and Hour Division director for the Labor Department’s Dallas regional office. During six months in 1992 though mostly from’ behind their desks Belt and his subordinates begun tracking down thousands of Truongs and hundreds of Lees and even a Victor Costa, evangelizing them with the law. United IE N VAN TRUONG came to the U States, although he felt lucky to be alive he had been an officer in the South Vietnamese army he was not at ease. His wife, Thi, and the couple’s children, a toddling boy and a newborn daughter, were still in Vietnam, and it was Truong’s financial responsibility both to provide for their support and fund their emigration. In California during his first years in the United States, Van worked at minimum wage jobs, by pairs: one full-time job, another on a 20-hour shift. He toiled away, alone, for a decade before his family could join him. In the intervening years, he sent money and long, nostalgic letters to his wife, telling her that though he hadn’t become rich in the United States, at least the two of them would soon share their American dreams. Shortly before his family arrived in 1989, Van Truong moved to Dallas, where he had friends. He immediately wrote to Thi, advising her to pick up the sewing trade, which he said would be the key to her prosperity in America. Van learned English, found a job as a readymix cement worker, and saved and planned with his wife in mind: A single-needle Juki sewing machine, mounted on a mint-green steel frame, was waiting in what would be the couple’s bedroom when she arrived. Although the Juki was made in Japan, it became more a part of Thi’s American experience than the flag, football or national anthem. What Thi had learned about sewing in Vietnam didn’t prepare her for the demands of industrial work. Her production was slow, and she was unaccustomed to the hours of tedium she faced. But her contractor was patient when, time and again, she did not complete her quotas on time; after all, he was paying her by the piece, not at an hourly rate. During Thi’s first three weeks at the machine, Van recalls today, her earnings totaled $75. Van had paid for the Juki in full, because he thought it would give his family an advantage. Owning it enabled them to switch from one contractor to another in search of a better arrangement unlike other home sewers, who were shackled because they had turned to contractors to cosign loans for credit purchases of their machines. As they progressed in the craft, the Truongs tried first one contractor, and then another, but as the months passed, the differences between contractors’ seemed to cancel themselves. “There are three kinds of contractors,” Van said.. “The first is a professional, who knows something about sewing, and who has been in business for several years. They have big contracts with big manufacturers and always have plenty of work for their sewers. But they don’t pay so well.” “The second type of contractor is one who is running a big family business. His wife and children will sew, and sev eral other relatives, too. This kind of contractor pays a lit tle better than the first kind, but if you’re not in his family, there may not always be enough work to go around.” “The third type of contractor is a guy who conies here from Los Angeles, looking to make money quick. He promises to pay better than the others. But to get the contracts, he has to charge really cheap rates, lower than the other contractors. A lot of these guys go broke, and the home-sewers don’t get paid at all.” It took about a year for Thi to fully get the hang of her work, and by then, Van and the couple’s son, whom shoolmates called “Nick”, began sharing her tasks. At first the males limited themselves to trimming excess threads from the stitches that Thi had sewn and folding the garments she’d completed. Before long, they were sewing, too. To keep everyone busy, the family purchased a serging machine, to do the sort work that most consumers would confuse with hemming. Thi did the serging, leaving more and men of the sewing to the men. The new machine purchase came just a few weeks before Van, in one of the layoffs THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15