Parents have a lot on their minds when they’re out shopping for their families. Price is often a big factor, and teens can be especially conscious about brands and style. I’ve spent a long time in government, trying to make sure that workers get paid the minimum wage, so I try to spend some time thinking about the workers behind the clothes, too.
As I’ve written before, the Labor Department is responsible for making the laws that protect workers count. And that means strong, agile, innovative enforcement practices that hold employers accountable for violations of the law. One of our challenges in providing workers with the protections to which they’re entitled is knowing how and where to apply the law by making an assessment of who bears the legal responsibility for any violations that we find. Accurate, thorough information about a business’ structure is critical to overcoming this challenge.
We all know that there is a dark side to the global economy – areas that escape our notice or fall outside clear legal regimes. We’ve responded to this by becoming increasingly conscious of the sources of the products we buy, whether it’s our coffee, our electronics or our clothing. We’re better informed than ever about the social or environmental impacts of our purchases. The Labor Department has developed valuable tools to help consumers in this regard, notably through its work to combat child labor and human trafficking.
Last week, a federal judge in California issued an important decision that will help us ensure compliance with wage and hour laws, “and help both employees and consumers make informed decisions.”
The case stems from a sweep of garment factories in downtown Los Angeles conducted by the department’s Wage and Hour Division in August 2012. The garment industry has a notoriously bad record when it comes to compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act – the federal law that sets minimum wage and overtime requirements. In the past five years, the department has conducted more than 1,500 investigations of employers in Southern California’s garment industry, finding violations in 93 percent of cases. During the 2012 investigations, the division determined that one factory – CUI Sewing Inc. – paid its employees below minimum wage and made no overtime payments.
This is where it gets tricky.
CUI Sewing was producing goods for a company called CMR Clothing Inc. Furthermore, it was discovered that CMR Clothing delivered more than 190,000 garments, including thousands from CUI Sewing, to Forever 21 – a store that’s well-known to the fashion-conscious – that year. The next step for the division was to determine whether or not Forever 21 violated a clause of the FLSA known as the “hot goods” provision. That phrase usually refers to stolen property, but this provision makes it unlawful for any person to “transport, offer for transportation, ship, deliver, or sell in commerce … any goods in the production of which any employee was employed in violation of [the FLSA minimum wage provisions].”
In the course of the investigation, the Labor Department subpoenaed records from Forever 21 in order to make a determination about the company’s relationship with the factory where workers were mistreated. Forever 21 refused to provide those records. That’s when we asked the judge to intervene.
The court agreed that we could have access to the records, explaining that “if [the department] uncovers evidence of wrongdoing and Forever 21 changes its compliance procedures as a result, this is not an improper use of the subpoena power. Rather, it would be a desired result.” This gets to exactly why this decision is so important for us, as we continue to find better ways to hold all parties in the supply chain of a product accountable for treating workers fairly. In order to protect workers, we must first examine a company’s practices and get the information we need to determine whether wrongdoing has occurred. I must note that this decision is not a determination of wrongdoing by Forever 21 – merely a finding that the retailer must turn over the documents requested by the Labor Department.
This helps us do our job defending workers’ rights effectively, but it also gives you the information you need to make sure that your great deal on a fashionable dress does not come at the expense of workers and their families.
M. Patricia Smith is the solicitor of labor.