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When Even the Minimum Wage Is a Distant Dream

Victor and Luz on the shop floor.
Victor and Luz on the shop floor.

Inside the basement of a large manufacturing building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with windows that are tinted less by design than sheer grime, nine immigrant women are sitting in front of sewing machines, stitching together pink and gray fabrics that are in the process of becoming T-shirts for young girls. “Dangerously Cute” is emblazoned across the chest of each item, the white letters outlined in silver glitter. Butterflies and stars swirl around the sassy slogan. Most of the 25 machines are dormant and form a rectangle on the shop floor that is illuminated by flickering fluorescent lights. Over the gentle sounds of the whirring of the nine machines in use, a radio is playing a Spanish love song. It is around this rectangle of silent workers that a hyperactive three-year old boy is wreaking havoc, jumping into boxes and throwing shirts on the ground.

 “Victor, ven aca (come here)!” yells his mother, Luz, looking up from her sewing just in time to see him push another stack of T-shirts off a nearby table. “Siéntate (sit down)!” Victor stops in his tracks and, sensing a punishment on the horizon, sprints over to Luz and climbs onto a stool next to where I am sitting. He plops down, panting. I grab him and put him on my lap, but he giggles and squirms free to continue running around the makeshift track. Luz sighs with a smile and goes back to work.

“He’s a little monster,” she tells me in Spanish, more in appreciation than exasperation. “But he only gets like this when someone else is here. If it’s just him, then he’ll go into the room over there and watch television.” She points to a doorway just off the shop floor.

I volunteer to take Victor for a walk around the block. “Don’t bother,” Luz advises me, “he’ll just tire you out.” But I decide I owe her at least a few minutes of work without distraction. After chasing Victor twice around the block, he is only more energized. Giving up, I grab him in my arms, push the front door of the factory open, and carry him down a flight of stairs to the basement. I escort Victor to the small room Luz had pointed out and settle him down on a large mattress in the middle of the floor.

The room is sparsely furnished but seems to be someone’s home: A small fridge is in the corner, a mirror hangs on the wall, and an alarm clock and a television sit atop two dressers. Victor becomes quickly absorbed in a rerun of Tom and Jerry, and I return to the shop floor, where Luz is now folding the shirts into neat rows. She tells me that the woman in charge, Julieta, lives in the room off the shop “sometimes, or maybe all the time—I’m not sure.”

Julieta doesn’t mind Victor being at the shop, says Luz, since he comes only in the afternoons and spends most of the time watching TV. With Victor having recently enrolled in Head Start, Luz is able to drop him off each morning and work until 3 p.m., when she picks him up from school and brings him to the factory for the remainder of her shift.

I ask her about the clothes that she makes at the factory.

“This stuff?” Luz shrugs. “They’re all clothes for girls. You can tell from the fabric that they’re no good.” She hands me a completed shirt. “But I guess that someone is buying them, somewhere.”

I ask Luz how much she earns in an hour.

“They don’t pay by the hour but by the piece,” she says, throwing another completed sweatshirt in her pile. “We do it by the dozen. We usually get paid $1.30 or $1.40 for each dozen.”

It takes an hour to an hour and a half to make a dozen shirts, says Luz, and as she answers my questions her voice betrays no anger; she could be describing last night’s weather. Instead, she’s telling me she earns about one-fifth New York’s minimum wage. After putting in two 60-hour weeks, she receives a cash payment of $150.00. For each item of clothing she completes she will make about a dime.

Like her sister, who lives in the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, Luz came to the United States in search of work. From the southern Mexican state of Puebla, Luz grew up in the countryside, where the scarcity of jobs led people to move to the United States en masse. “At home I couldn’t make money,” Luz told me. “Men might work in construction, but they don’t get paid much. But here, people said that there was always work that would pay well.”

And for a while, there was. Before 9/11, Luz worked at a unionized garment factory that paid her $5 per dozen pieces, more money than she could hope to make in Mexico. But after 9/11, the factory either closed down entirely or reconstituted itself overseas—Luz isn’t sure which—and is now being converted into housing.

According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing recession caused the largest one-year drop in manufacturing jobs in the last twenty years: 15.7 percent. In 2002 it fell another 11.5 percent. Still, the New York State Department of Labor estimates that in 2003 there were nearly 40,000 people producing apparel in the state, and the garment industry remains the largest manufacturing sector in New York City.

It also is an important source of employment for immigrants, who across the nation constitute 75 percent of the apparel workforce. Although having much higher labor costs than countries like China, New York City garment factories are able to persist because they contract with stores that are looking for smaller orders and quicker turnaround times. And, of course, shops like Luz’s increase their competitiveness by breaking the law, paying wages that are actually below that of many factories on the Mexican border. Globalization compelled workers like Luz to migrate to the United States for higher wages; not long after, maquiladora wages followed suit.

Exploitation runs rampant in New York City’s apparel industry. In his recent book Slaves to Fashion, the sociologist Robert Ross estimates that in 2000 there were approximately 265,000 sweatshop workers in this country, concentrated most heavily in Los Angeles and New York City. In 2003, the New York State Department of Labor conducted 1,321 investigations of apparel companies. They found that 526 shops, or 40 percent, were in violation of wage laws—paying subminimum wages or failing to pay overtime. The problem of the sweatshop, thought of as a pressing issue in developing countries like China and Indonesia, has yet to be solved here at home.

Julieta, who supervises the workers, is a fair-skinned Costa Rican woman, probably in her early forties. When I had first asked Luz about visiting her at work, I had anticipated my presence would set off some red flags: What business, other than stirring up some trouble, could a white man have hanging out with a worker down here?

But a few visits to the factory made it clear that Julieta was not the traditional sweatshop boss. Though technically in charge, Julieta did essentially the same work as everyone else and was on good terms with the other women. At times, when Victor was getting into trouble, Julieta would run up behind him and sweep him into her arms, laughing as she brought him back to her room. She had even christened Victor with an appropriate nickname: terremoto, or “earthquake” in Spanish. Indeed, it was difficult to discern any sort of hierarchy on the shop floor.

One night I arranged to interview Julieta at the factory, where I found her punching tags that read “Hot Shots,” the brand name of the garments made here, onto blue and white T-shirts. During our discussion she rapidly folded and tagged clothes, then moved the massive bundles of shirts from one place to another.

“I came to the U.S. seven years ago,” she said, pausing for a moment to reflect on her journey. “And I’ve been doing this work ever since.” At her previous job, Julieta earned $7 per dozen pieces, nearly twice her current wage. Her work consisted primarily of pulling off labels like “Made in El Salvador” or “Made in China” and replacing them with tags that read “Made in the USA.” Two years into the work, however, the INS raided the factory and rounded up 12 workers that were in the country illegally. The eleven who had no documentation were deported. Julieta, who had overstayed her tourist visa by 18 months, was able to stay.

I asked Julieta about her current working arrangement.

“Payment is made in cash, always,” she told me. “We all get paid by the dozen. I get the money from the boss and hand it out to the workers. I make more than the others, since I’m here all the time and in charge. For every dozen pieces I get four dollars. Others make even less.”

“Who pays you?” I asked.

“The boss, Herman. But he never pays us on time. Usually I have to go up to the office on the second floor to get the money. We have to complain for days before we get paid.”

Though she makes more than her coworkers, she still earns well below the minimum wage. “The other workers don’t fight with me, because they know that I’m with them,” she explained. “And they know that I start work at 7:30 and work late, sometimes until midnight or one in the morning. They know I’m doing everything I can to get people their money, since it’s my money too.”

At the moment, Herman Niederman, who Julieta calls a “nasty, nasty man,” has more pressing concerns than this Bedford-Stuyvesant sweatshop. In October of 2003, Herman and an associate were indicted by the federal government for conspiracy, mail fraud, and wire fraud in relation to a series of five suspicious fires set between 1987 and 1999 at a Williamsburg factory they owned. In an elaborate arson-for-profit endeavor, Herman and his associate pocketed $4.5 million from insurance companies using four different addresses for the same factory, according to government prosecutors. The case has been in court for more than a year; if found guilty, Herman and his partner face a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of $250,000 for each count.

When I shared this information with Julieta, she wasn’t surprised. “I had heard people say that he was in trouble with the government, but I didn’t know what they were talking about,” she said. Still, Julieta was hoping to hold on to the job for as long as possible. “Yes, it’s hard. But at least I don’t have to pay rent for living down here. If I had to pay the high rents in this neighborhood, I don’t know what I would do.”

Each week, rolls of fabrics arrive on the factory floor and go upstairs to be cut and have designs ironed on. Upstairs the workers are male and, according to Julieta, paid well. Within Herman’s company a legitimate aboveground business exists, where people are paid according to the rules. But downstairs in the basement a shadow economy of payments in cash flourishes, and the two universes—male and female, legitimate and off the books—remain independent of each other. Luz told me that she didn’t know any of the male workers, though they are both employed by the same company and depend on each other’s labor, day after day.

Once the material comes down to the basement, it is stitched together by the women and slapped with a “Made in the USA” label. After being folded and stuffed into boxes, they are picked up and shipped out to stores across the city. Julieta is responsible for making sure that about 500 dozen—6,000 pieces—are completed each week. When demand is high, it is not uncommon for Julieta to put in 90, even 100-hour workweeks, while others like Luz clock in 60 to 70 hours. Overtime doesn’t exist here.

As with many Brooklyn sweatshops, the garments produced here are sold at local discount stores such as Cookie’s, a large department store in downtown Brooklyn specializing in children’s wear. Here, hanging on endless racks, were the products of Luz and Julieta’s labor: a purple-and-black shirt with a rose emblem for $8.99; a pair of pink stretch pants for $6.99.

A few weeks after my initial visit, I was back at the factory playing tag with Victor around the sewing machines. Julieta came over to greet me.

“Hola, Gabriel,” she called, extending her hand. “Look at how much energy that little guy has! You’re no match for him,” she said, laughing.

“No, but that’s okay,” I replied, gasping. “I could use the exercise anyway.”

Julieta smiled again, and then became serious. “You know, they have day care upstairs, for the children of the bosses. It’s set up real nice, where the kids can play and be taken care of. Maybe you should take him up there. We’re the ones doing the hardest work, after all.”

I nodded in agreement and resumed chasing after Victor, running around a factory where his mom was busy making clothing for girls his age. If she is able to hold onto the job, Luz will make $4,680 this year. Her wages can’t support child care, nor can Julieta’s pay for the high rents of the neighborhood. In this factory, whose tags proudly read “Made in the USA,” workers have learned to turn their sweatshop into a child-care facility—even a permanent home.


Gabriel Thompson


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 04-JAN 05

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