Inside New York's sweatshops

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The Independent Culture
Inside New York's sweatshops... where children as young as eight have been found stitching garments for major fashion houses.

Daniel Jeffreys joins the city's labour department police in a series of warehouse raids Joe Halik has always worked in New York. Born in Brooklyn, for the past 20 years he has been a special kind of cop - an investigator for the New York State department of labour. His criminals are employers, his crime scenes are sweatshops, and the victims are often children.

"I've seen kids as young as eight, bent over a sewing machine, cuts all over their hands," Halik says. We are standing outside a McDonald's in Brooklyn, down by the docks on the East River. The old marine warehouses teem with illegal factories churning out garments for Manhattan's fashion houses.

Acting on a tip-off, Halik and his team are preparing to raid some local sweatshops. "We'll make the McDonald's our base," says his partner, Paul Kalka. "Anyone gets separated, meet back here."

Halik leads a raid about once every two weeks. He is well-known in the neighbourhood. "That helps us to get tips," he says. "But it also hinders. The moment we hit one shop, word gets out. The others start to clear out the kids."

We enter an old warehouse. It is dark inside and smells of urine. Four investigators head for the basement. Halik stumbles over a bale of cloth. "There's no lights to the exit and the stairs are obstructed," Kalka whispers. "At the very least here's a fire department violation."

Halik bangs on a steel door. "Open up. New York State department of labour. You must open this door." The door widens slightly and Halik and his team show their badges. A frightened woman tries to close it again. "You must open the door," shouts Halik. "This is such bullshit," he says to nobody in particular.

Last year, more than 4,000 raids on businesses in New York State resulted in 1,608 fines for violations of child labour laws - the highest figure in six years. Immigration officials blame a surge in illegal immigration over the past six months and warn that Mexico's financial crisis will increase the flow. Halik estimates that 60,000 children below the legal working age of 16 are working in these factories. At least half are between 10 and 12-years-old. Half are Chinese, the rest from Mexico and other Central American countries.

The door opens again; a man this time. He sees Kalka's badge and grudgingly lets him enter. Fourteen people are labouring in a tiny space with no natural light. In one corner, a young boy is hard at work.

Kalka, a Spanish speaker, asks the questions. Halik stands nearby, guiding the interrogation. The boy says he is 19. "Bullshit," says Halik. "Ask him for ID." The boy, who looks 13 or 14, pulls out a Green Card. "Ah," says Kalka, "Carta Verde. It says his name is Theodoro Martinez, from Mexico." He hands it to Halik. The boy looks on, fear in his eyes.

The card is an obvious fake. "Look at the photograph," says Halik. "The picture is a profile shot, in colour, and it's raised. To be genuine, the photo would be black-and-white, a head-on shot. It would not be raised like this. I'd guess he bought the card for $50, probably in LA."

"When is your birthday?" asks Kalka in Spanish. "1 April, 1978," Martinez mumbles. "Hah!" says Halik. "He caught himself out. That would make him 17 next birthday. He said he was 19." Halik and Kalka have a bust.

Which doesn't mean they bust Martinez. He is the victim here. The sharp interrogation is to gather evidence against the employer. "The kid's probably in the States illegally," says Kalka. "But I've told him we're not from Immigration. We are here to protect his rights. He should be in school."

Halik goes after the man who opened the door. Kalka follows. Martinez goes back to work. He is attaching Kids R Us labels to Lion King T-shirts. Kids R Us is the US clothing arm of Toys R Us. Major labels are often found in sweatshops. Toys R Us says thegarment must be a counterfeit but they promiseds to investigate. They admit they don't always know which subcontractors are in their suppliers' production chain and that's all part of the system.

The system works like this: a clothing company invites bids for an item of clothing and usually gives the job to the manufacturer offering the lowest bid. The manufacturer then sub-contracts, again taking the lowest bid. By the time it reaches somebody like Martinez, his employer is probably getting $1.25 a garment, and the profit margin is wafer-thin. The employer must pay his rent and bills, but one area he can skimp on is wages.

That is what Martinez's boss has been doing. "We are issuing a 132 violation here," says Halik. "The boy must produce proper documents within 10 days. If he doesn't, we'll fine his employer. It also looks like Martinez has only been paid $2.50 an hour. The minimum wage is $4.50."

What happens to the boy? "I doubt he will be here in an hour," Halik shrugs. "That's part of the problem. He'll be forced to leave. The guy we gave the ticket to - he probably ain't the owner. So the kid will go to another shop. His family probably needsthe money."

If Halik finds somebody who is obviously under 16, they must stop work immediately. But there is no support system, the department cannot afford to offer counselling, and parents of working children often chastise them for being caught.

"Last year I found the same kid in three different factories," says Halik. "All we hope is that the raids discourage somebody."

Ken Ho was picked up in one of Halik's raids 18 months ago. He is luckier than most. He is now 17 and has found a job with the Chinese Workers' Association, which tries to improve the conditions of Chinese workers. "My bosses used to pay the fines and put me back to work," says Ho. "Even with the fines, I was cheaper than adult labour. My first job, when I was 12, paid $2 an hour. The bosses don't even treat you like a human being. The factories are dirty. It's always hot in summer, freezing in winter. Cockroaches are everywhere."

He says almost all his friends had the same experience. They arrived in the US without proper papers and with few resources. That makes them vulnerable. "Every immigrant kid has a job in either a garment factory or a restaurant," says Ho. "They have to support their families. I've seen kids as young as 11 on the sewing machines."

Back in Brooklyn, Halik and Kalka are raiding another sweat shop. This time the owners refuse to open the door. But Kalka's done a bust here before. "Back outside," he shouts. "Head for the other entrance." The task force hits the street just as six young Mexicans spill out of another exit. They manage to stop just one. He says his name is Carlos and he is 15 years old.

Halik arrives, out of breath. He left two of his team inside. Once they broke through the door upstairs they found several breaches of regulations. "The kitchen and toilet were in the same room. There was rat infestation," he says. "The floor was coveredwith scrap material; aisles and fire exits were blocked. Two people were smoking. A fire in there could have killed 30, 40, who knows. But what can you do?"

Halik leans against a truck. "It's up to the big names in the industry. They could end all this if they stopped turning a blind eye. Maybe if people asked more questions about how their fancy clothes get made..."

He looks thoughtful, remembering. "You know we busted this operation once, back in 1985. They were sewing dresses for a designer. I thought the dress looked familiar, then I remembered. Nancy Reagan had worn the same one, at President Reagan's inaugural."

He turns to Kalka. "So what's the story here?" he asks. Kalka is still interrogating Carlos, who says he was born in America. "Where in America?" asks Kalka. "The United States of Brooklyn," says Carlos, a serious expression on his face.

Halik and Kalka crack up. "That's a new one!" says Kalka. "Maybe the kid has a point," says Halik. "Make Brooklyn a separate country, then we can really take on these scumbags."