says its spokesman, Nhien Tran, who is not related to the sewing-machine sales king. Though the Labor Department sued Nhien Tran for FLSA violations in June, if his pronouncements can be taken as gospel, members of his association have now come above-ground, now stay within the law, and now regard home-sewing contractors as rivals. “If they do sewing in their homes, there’s no way that we who have shops can compete with them,” he says. Tran eagerly sounds alarms about imports, as if the industry’s lawlessness were thereby abgolved. “We contractors are competing with overseas and that’s why you don’t see many Americans in this business. If it comes to the point that even we foreigners can’t compete,” he says, “then the country really has a problem.” But after speaking to Tran, one comes away with the feeling that the real purpose of his group may be to divert FLSA enforcement, not to lead the way to compliance. Tran’s most fundamental assertions seem calculated to minimize the problem. For example, he says that not more than 100 sewing contractors operate in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, employing not more than 8,000 home-sewers. While the number of home-sewers is difficult to count are there one, two or three home-sewers in the Truong household? both of Tran’s figures seem far too low. The Vietnamese newspaper Thoi Dam conservatively reports that there are 10,000 home: sewers in the region; NOTME has compiled a list of 150 finishing shops. And the Labor Department numbers are considerably higher. Belt says that his office has already located and interviewed “between 200 and 300” contractors; he estimates the number of homesewers as “about 20,000.” In response to the spring Labor Department suits and warnings, a few contractors ordered home-sewers to report for work in shops where formerly only finishing was done. A few operators hired new workers mostly Mexican immigrants to take the place of sewers who didn’t show. But the new order of compliance didn’t last long. Evasion is easy, and tempting and Labor Department investigators don’t even place admitted violators under special scrutiny. In early September, the Dallas Observer sent a mock job applicant to four sewingand-finishing shops. Posing as an immigrant with minimal sewing skills, she received job ‘offers at three of them but not at an hourly wage. “The more you produce, the more you make,” she was told at one shop. “You can work extra hours if you want, as many as you want. We’ll pay you the same rate per piece.” “The buttonhole machine operators are paid by the hour, but the sewers are paid by piecework,” another contractor told her. “After you’ve worked here awhile and we know you, we might let you take sewing home,” said an employee at a shop operated by the Asian Association’s Nhien Tran. At every shop, our applicant was warned that she’d have to prove that she had entered the United States legally. By raiding workplaces and imposing fines, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has won respect for its laws. Labor’s caseworkers, by contrast, are largely office-bound. If contractors display contempt for home-sewing regulation, it is clearly a reflection of the FLSA and Labor’s impotence. “If we didn’t tell them that we had home-sewers,” one of the contractors observes, “they wouldn’t know.” The American Apparel Manufacturers Association remained silent during the 1986 Congressional hearings on the home-sewing controversy but has recently encouraged its member groups to speak up for themselves. Nonetheless, the local affiliate, the Southwestern Apparel Manufacturing Association, or SAMA, has little to say. “Last spring we thought about sponsoring a forum on home sewing and the law,” says SAMA executive director Harriet Hagestead, “but we found out that nobody would serve on a panel. We were even told that no one would ask a question, because people are afraid to attract attention, afraid that they would be next to get hit with a federal injunction. If you ask about home-sewing, people’s lips turn to Velcro.” “I’ve never seen a home-sewer, and I’ve never met one,” says SAMA President Jerry Cott, of the University of North Texas Center for Marketing and Design. “One hundred percent of the manufacturers in our association have agreed to abide by the law, and they are complying …We also don’t know of any contractors who aren’t complying.” Yet Victor Costa, the most famous of Dallas designers, and Rozanna Huynh, daughter of the city’s most acclaimed manufacturer,have both been cited in FLSA suits. Units, a Dallas-born, wholly-owned subsidiary of the city’s biggest apparel buyer, J.C. Penney, and Jerrel, Inc., a major firm, active in SAMA and contractors for at least a dozen manufacturing firms have also recently been named. If Cott doesn’t know about these suits, perhaps his only source of information is the Dallas Morning News, whose pages have mentioned only the Costa affair. Late last summer NOTME unearthed a 1957 law requiring all industrial homeworkers and their employers to register with the Texas Department of Health. The seldom-used law also gives the Health Department the authority to seize goods produced in violations of its terms. As they’d done with the FLSA, NOTME’s men began lobbying for enforcement of the Texas statute. In mid-October, their efforts began to pay off. Letters to manufacturers are now in the mail, informing them of their duties under the 1957 law. A repeat of Bill Belt’s federal sweep has begun. Manufacturers, contractors and home-sewers face fresh heat, albeit with tepid flame. Van Truong and his family continue to devote their working lives to the Dallas apparel trade. Thi labors for 12 to 14 hours a day, and Van who is also the family’s chauffeur, translator, and sometimes laundryman works on the family’s home sewing machines for about half as long. Young “Nick” pitches in during his free time. Hard as they work, they harbor no special devotion to Mr. Lee, their contractor, or the manufacturing companies he represents, or even the retail stores who bring the family’s products to you. The Truongs know that they are working too hard for too little. So they focus, day after day, on a solitary goal: to build a nest egg for the education of 14-year-old Kim, who, because her English is impeccable and her memories are only of the U.S.A ., stands the best chance to adapt to life in the family’s new homeland. Before another decade has passed, her parents expect Kim to graduate from college, opening the doors to the real American dream. To underwrite her studies, the Troungs know they’ll have to save more than they now can on their meager income. Last summer, during the FLSA scare, Van read a helped-wanted ad seeking employees for a newly-opened shop. Believing that he could increase his earnings, he signed on for the job. But he found it was nothing new. “In the newspaper they said that they paid by the hour, but they only paid by the piece,” says Van. “They told me, ‘The more yoti sew, the more you make.’ But I couldn’t make more,” he laments. Over a period of three weeks at the shop, Van’s paycheck averaged $2.30 an hour. Van wants Mr. Lee, or the operator of a shop somebody to pay him a decent wage. He contemplates the day when, perhaps through government action to enforce laws that already exist, he can someday leave his bedroom sewing labors for a factory that pays a legal wage. But even if that happens, justice will not have been done. It cannot be; it is far too late for that. No return to fair labor practices in the garment industry can restore the earnings and benefits, make up for the hope and pride, that both factory workers and lawabiding contractors lost on the day when the Truongs sewed their first stitch for Mr. Lee. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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