LABOR SECRETARY Ray Donovan's personal foray last week into the sweatshops of New York City was a useful if grim reminder that humanity has not yet progressed to the state where some employers can be trusted to police themselves. The secretary was, understandably, shocked and angered by what he saw. There were dozens of illegal aliens working in the sort of conditions that gave a bad name of the Industrial Revolution. Among them were a sixth-grade child and a 90-year-old woman.
What the secretary saw was not an isolated case. Sweatshops in the garment industry are reported to be spreading from their longtime in Chinatown to other parts of New York City, Westchester and New Jersey. They are also said to flourish in Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago. Legitimate garment factories are, at best, unattractive places. Sweatshops distinguish themselves by violating every tenet known to modern industrialism from wage and hour standards to child labor laws. Working conditions -- blocked exits, narrow unlit stairs, fire hazards at every turn -- represent no improvement on those prevailing 70 years ago at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory when the fiery death of 146 workers aroused public opinion in support of labor laws for the protection of women and children.
Now, as there was then, there is plenty of blame to spread around. Morally, the guilt rests squarely on the garment manufacturers. Like Secretary Donovan we find it hard to believe that the manufacturers are unaware of the shabby origins of their goods. Legally, however, the situation is less clear since manufacturers typically contract the sewing of goods to operators who regularly shift the locations of their sweatshops to avoid government inspectors. The manufacturers may inspect the shops to check on work quality, but they do not regard working conditions as their concern.
Manufacturers blame the garment workers' union for failing to protect the workers. Sweatshops, however, typically employ foreign workers, many of them illegal aliens, who are difficult to organize and scared to complain. This leaves the primary policing job to government, where federal and local laws clearly place it. Lax enforcement of fire and building codes is the fault of local government. But it is Mr. Donovan's department that is directly responsible for the enforcement of hour, wage, safety and child labor laws, a responsibility that, apart from highly publicized raids like the recent ones, has been pursued with a notable lack of vigor.
There is a certain irony in the reemergence of the sweatshop in this period of regularoty rollback. It is true that much of government regulation is niggling or heavy-handed, that enforcement priorities are frequently misplaced and that reform is needed. It is also true that there are good reasons why labor laws were put on the books and that, until there is some miraculous improvement of human sensibility, there will be a need for effective enforcement