* "Sweat Shops"

Topics: Rights, Regulation
11 Dec 1994

From: "DG Ervan Darnell"

Tonight's "60 Minutes" had a piece on sweat shop labor being used to produce
garments in the U.S. What I wrote a couple of months about home sewing
correctly analyzes this situation too. Essentially, the labor department
has decided it isn't fair consumers pay only $20 for a sweater when they
could be paying $40 instead nor is it fair that immigrants work for $4/hour
when they could be out of a job instead. It's all in the name of helping
the poor, of course. The only person in this whole sordid tale who deserves
to be out of work is Robert Reich.

Beyond the rehash, there were a couple of interesting aspects of this
particular program that were not at issue in my previous piece. The usual
way this business works is that designers contract out with manufacturers,
often several different ones for different aspects of even a single garment.
The manufacturers then pay people for the piece work of sewing. The point
of this is that labor department was busting the designers because the
manufacturers were breaking labor laws! This happened by the direct
expedient of simply seizing the inventory. Though the piece was sketchy on
this, it seemed that the investigators had the authority to do this without
anyone being found guilty of anything. Thus, people who have committed no
crime, have no rational control over someone else who has, and have not been
even been found guilty of their uncrime are punished. Of course, even the
crimes that the manufacturers are accused of are nonsensical in the first place.

They interviewed some inspectors who had just made a tour of 60 sewing shops
that day. Since this was labor law, they did not need warrants to search.
Nor did they have to restrict their search to any particular thing. At the
end of the day, every single shop was found guilty of something, from not
paying overtime (on piece work!) to having improperly insulated electrical
boxes. The bottom line is clear: by virtue of being in business you are
guilty of breaking the law. The labor department can bust you anytime they
want without bothering to even need a reason to come molest you. I remember
the scene of one Oriental lady who was running her own shop. The inspectors
had just finished confiscating her inventory because of some impropriety on
the time cards (apparently). She was pleading, almost crying, in broken
English not to destroy her business. Their answer was "we have to".

Holding to their irony streak, the first piece on 60 Minutes was about the
wholesale corruption of the Nigerian government. While it does not seem the
labor department inspectors were accepting bribes to overlook violations,
all of the pieces are in place:
1) Warrantless searches
2) Everyone is breaking the law (or buys from someone who is)
3) Wide discretion of who to investigate
4) Summary punishment without trial
When such scandal is uncovered, I'm sure it will be reported as evil corrupt
businessman who are blamed for daring to corrupt the altruistic government