State labor commissioner pays back wages to Wins employees
SAN FRANCISCO - The California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), in cooperation with Sweatshop Watch, the Chinese Progressive Association and the Women's Employment Rights Clinic of Golden Gate University, paid more than $865,000 in back wages owed to more than 200 employees of former Wins garment contractors on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002.
"It's with a great deal of satisfaction that we gave these checks to workers, who went over a year without the pay they earned," said California Labor Commissioner Arthur Lujan.
Wins workers' back wages were paid out of a special garment worker fund established by the state. A portion of licensing fees paid by California's garment contractors and manufacturers is set aside to ensure that workers are paid when wages owed by irresponsible contractors and manufacturers are not forthcoming.
The garment worker fund has a payout cap of $50,000 per year, but in May the state labor commissioner asked the legislature for an exception to that cap which would allow payment of over $865,000 owed to Wins workers. On September 12 Governor Davis signed SB 1832, approving the exception and allowing the commissioner to request workers' checks from the state controller's office.
"We are very pleased that the workers have finally received their wages, and we look forward to continuing to work with the state labor commissioner to hold accountable the owners of the Wins garment factories," said Nikki Bas, Co-Director of Sweatshop Watch.
This complex case was opened in July 2001, when DLSE investigators found that Wins of California's employees were not being paid. The investigation further revealed that shop owners Anna Wong and Toha "Jimmy" Quan owned three other companies -- San Francisco garment shops Win Industries of America and Win Fashions, as well as Utah-based manufacturer, Tomi Inc. Family member and company principal Jenny Wong kept the books and rotated employees between all three San Francisco shops.
Through Tomi Inc., Wins sold garments to K-Mart, JC Penny, Sears, TJ Maxx, Sam's Club, Mervyn's, Bebe, It's my Baby, Kandy Kiss, Cut Loose, Two Star Dog, Flapdoodles, M.B. Sport and the U.S. Army/Air Force Exchange.
The case was further complicated by employees' fears of confronting
their long-time employers. State investigators relied heavily on Sweatshop
Watch and the Chinese Progressive Association to help them break through cultural
barriers and interview workers. Chinese-speaking DLSE employees came from
all over the state and worked with advocate groups over the course of five
days to take worker statements, help them file wage claims and, ultimately,
understand their rights.
Audits of company records helped determine how much was owed to each employee.
"We applaud the state's efforts on behalf of the Wins workers, but the former sweatshop owners must still be held accountable so that a clear message is sent to all employers that criminal labor abuses will not be tolerated," said Chinese Progressive Association spokesperson Leon Chow.
After initial attempts to recover workers' wages from Wins companies were rebuffed, DLSE attorney David Balter filed suit against the principals to prevent them from transferring ownership of eight properties in San Francisco and Oakland, estimated to be worth in excess of $6 million. The DLSE won a writ of attachment in the amount of $2.1 million on the properties and is aggressively pursuing its lawsuit to secure payment of civil penalties for Wins' workers, recover wages paid to these workers out of the garment worker fund, and to pay state attorney fees.
"The Wins case presents a huge wage liability, extreme
exploitation of Chinese-speaking workers, and is the largest scandal in the
garment industry since a 1995 investigation in El Monte exposed a company
holding Thai workers in virtual slavery to sew garments," said Balter.
In August of last year the DLSE obtained a court injunction, which effectively shut down the Wins plants for failing to maintain required state garment registrations.
"Our cooperation with Sweatshop Watch, the Chinese Progressive
Association and the Women's Employment Rights Clinic of Golden Gate University
helped us get where we are in this case today -- distributing the first of
the money owed to these workers," said commissioner Lujan.
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