If you thought sweatshops were just a third-world phenomena, you’d be grossly mistaken. Thousands of workers in Southern California’s garment industry toil under similar conditions for pittance wages every day, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In fact, widespread labor violations by garment businesses in and around Los Angeles are costing their workers millions of dollars in unpaid wages. The department’s Wage and Hour Division, after conducting hundreds of investigations this past fiscal year, uncovered more than $3 million in back pay for 1,549 workers, nearly all of them based in and around Los Angeles. That works out to an average of $1,900 per worker, or five times the amount a typical sewing-machine operator earns in a single week.

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While the names of the offending businesses, which include Roger Garments, Eve L.A., and Lucky Stars, aren’t likely to ring any bells, their clients’ will. Clothing from the facilities are regularly sold to popular retailers such as JCPenney, Macy’s, Nasty Gal, and Nordstrom.

David Weil, administrator for the Wage and Hour Division, says that the apparel industry’s “race-to-the-bottom culture” has created incentives for manufacturers to shortchange their workers, many of whom are immigrants with a poor grasp of English and even poorer awareness of their rights.

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“Fierce competition in the garment industry leads many contract shops to lower the cost of their services, frequently at the expense of workers’ wages,” Weil says in a statement. “When workers don’t receive the wages to which they are legally entitled, they can’t afford the basics like food, rent, and child care.”

Since investigations into the Southern California garment industry began in 2009, the Labor Department says it has found wage-theft violations in 89 percent of its 1,600-plus cases, including instances of employers paying workers less than agreed on, withholding overtime and sick pay, falsifying clock-in and clock-out times, and making arbitrary paycheck deductions.

So prevalent are these practices in the industry that the division says it has to date recovered more than $15 million in back wages for almost 12,000 garment workers covered under The Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates a minimum wage of $7.25 for all hours worked.

“We will uphold the American promise of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” Weil adds.

+ U.S. Department of Labor

[Via Los Angeles Times]