Amid increasing attention on the plight of sweatshop workers, Gov. Gray Davis signed into law a $2 million budget increase Thursday for the California’s labor law enforcers.
The move came as garment and janitorial workers testified at an Assembly subcommittee hearing in Los Angeles about being overworked and underpaid. They urged state lawmakers to beef up the Department of Industrial Relations so that complaints are handled more efficiently and facilities inspected more frequently.
Sweatshop worker advocates described the increase as a drop in the bucket and lambasted Davis for not approving the more than $4 million augmentation they had hoped for.
“We are actually very angered and surprised because from all the testimony today we have heard so much about how the DIR needs more personnel,” said Joann Lo, a representative of the Garment Worker Center. “We think it can help a little bit but not enough.” The governor’s office refused to comment on the workers’ complaints about the budget, referring all calls to the Department of Industrial Relations. Worker advocates met last month with a representative of the governor’s office to make their case.
Workers claim they have endured work days sometimes as long as 16 hours, six to seven days a week, earning as little as $2 per hour.
For those who file complaints, they contend they get limited or no responses. Many say they fear reprisal from their employers either by losing their job or – for many immigrant workers – being turned over the federal authorities. Others recommended to the lawmakers Thursday that the complaint forms need to be available in more languages.
Yanny Saavedra, a Mexican woman who has worked in Los Angeles County for four years, said she filed a complaint against one sweatshop in February and even kept labels from major brand-names that she sewed on clothes as evidence, but her case remains unresolved.
The Department of Industrial Relations spokesman, Dean Fryer, agreed with Lo that a $2 million increase would not be enough to accomplish everything his department needs. The downturn in the economy and limited general fund resources available to the governor were responsible for the reduced size of the budget augmentation, he said. According to statistics provided at the oversight hearing, the size of the Department of Industrial Relations has not kept pace with the growth of employees in the agriculture, construction, garment and restaurant industries.
Labor Committee Chair Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, agreed that funding and staffing are partly responsible for the department’s shortcomings, but also suggested other changes within the department could help. For example, he said investigators should broaden their inquiries to include additional workers when it appears a complaint probably applies to other employees in a particular workplace.
Fryer said his department already does that to a certain extent, but is limited by staffing and budget problems. A centralized database of all violators also would help investigators, but the department doesn’t have the funds for that system, he said, and it doesn’t appear Thursday’s new monies would be allowed to be used for that purpose.