MICHAEL ALEXANDER N 1991, NOTME renewed its agi tation. In twos and threes, old-time factory men visited immigration, tax, and wage authorities, politicians and even cops. Though much of their information was dated, they renewed it as best they could and as only they could, making calls to younger heads, slyly soliciting data about contracts, sales and quality control. One member of the Dallas claque claims that he drove 5,000 miles, trailing contractor’s vans, gathering intelligence. When NOTME’s men visited Labor’s Bill Belt, they presented him with the names and addresses of home-sewing contractors and data on the manufacturers they served. NOTME’s demands placed Belt in an unenviable position. Today he says that press exposure of sweatshop practices in El Paso had already sensitized his bosses in Washington to garment-industry issues. But the department’s 1986 opposition to the ban no doubt gave him reason to suspect that his superiors might not not favor a campaign against home-sewing and against those whose fortunes relied on the practice. But 1992 was an election year, and one can imagine although Belt won’t say so that the Labor Department wasn’t eager to to be accused of ignoring charges that poverty-stricken immigrants were being exploited. Cautious by nature, Belt assigned investigators to the charges that the factory men had made. Months later, his office mailed letters to area manufacturers and sewing contractors, informing them of the FLSA’s provisions and of the department’s duty to enforce them. By March, the Labor Department was sending a subsequent set of letters to suspect operators, summoning them to the Wage and Hour Division’s Dallas office, payroll records in hand. As the Wage and Hour operatives worked through their lists, they sent difficult or aggravated cases about three dozen so far to their legal office for resolution in court. However timidly it had begun, a bureaucratic sweep was underway. In June, the Labor Department investigators may have gotten near a mythic Dallas industry figure when they filed an FLSA suit that named as its respondent Rozanna Fashions, an obscure, unincorporated Arlington firm. City directory listings show that Rozanna Fashions is located at 1623 New York Ave., until recently the address of Anh Ly Fashions; Anh Ly is the wife of Tuan Minh Huynh he of J.C. Penney and Reader’s Digest accolades. Tuan Minh Huynh and Anh Ly have a daughter named Rozanna and water usage at 1623 New York Ave. is still billed to Ly. Mr. Huynh refuses to comment on the affair. But the law with which Belt and his investigators worked was not one of the more robust statutes on the books. As with IRS infractions, money, not jail time, usually allows a violator to get off the hook. In virtually all such cases, the government seeks mere a promise of future compliance and sometimes the payment of back wages. The FLSA also gives the Labor Department the authority to seek legal costs, as well as damages and interest. And under so-called “hot goods” provisions, the law also permits Labor’s agents to request a court order blocking the shipment of garments made in violation of the FLSA. But in practice, punitive actions including “hot goods” and criminal charges are almost never sought. Acknowledges Belt, “As long as we get back wages paid, as far as we’re concerned, the case is over.” The bottom line is that for apparel manufacturers and home-sewing contractors, evasion is never more expensive than obedience and is usually far more profitable. In May, after Belt laid down the law to contractors in a meeting at an Arlington Hiltol hotel, the Vietnamese-language press took up the home-sewing issue arguing not that immigrants were being exploited, but in defense of the practice. Among its points: that government assistance to refugees lasts less than a year, barely time . enough for mastering English or acquiring a car prerequisites for seeking a good job in Dallas. More poignant arguments were advanced, too. “The virtue of Vietnamese family life is that it centers on the mother,” Peter Tran observed in the Arlington magazine Vinam, “and that’s why they like to work at home instead of at a shop, even though the income might be less, in comparison with the hours of work…. Babysitting doesn’t have to be paid for childcare because mothers can work and at the same time take care of their children.” In his review of the issue, journalist Tran calculated an example of home-sewing wages and costs. A 40-hour factory job at $5 an hour, he noted, would provide a worker with about $165 in take-home pay. From that amount, a woman with two pre-school children would have to spend about $50 for child care. Her effective earnings would be less $3 an hour or about as much as women like Thi earn at home. Home-sewing cheats governments, not workers, apologists for the system said. Cheating the government, they might have added, is as American as apple pie. The Labor Department’s enforcement push gave impetus to a new organization, the Asian Sewing Association of Dallas-Fort Worth. It is headed by sewing-machine shop owner Hai Tran, who is also a contractor. The Asian Association speaks for about 45 contractors, mostly of Vietnamese origin, 18 MAY 7, 1993
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