The U.S. Department of Labor announced Wednesday it conducted 77 investigations at randomly selected garment contractors in Southern California this year and found violations 85 percent of the time, resulting in $1.3 million in back wages for 865 workers.
The contractors were mostly making clothes for bargain retailers like Ross and TJ Maxx, but in some cases clothes also went to higher end stores such as Nordstrom. Wage violations have long been commonplace in the fashion industry, but officials say the number of violations are now at record highs.
"Enough is enough," said Ruben J. Rosalez, regional administrator for the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. “After 29 years with this agency, it really saddens me that the industry has gotten worse, the underground economy has gotten worse, and sweatshops still exist in America.”
The most common violations were not paying the minimum wage or failing to pay overtime. Officials say most workers in the garment industry are immigrants with limited English skills who often don't know their rights and are afraid to speak up, and that retailers often look the other way, only caring about getting the cheapest labor costs.
"The supply chain is not monitoring for this problem," said Rosalez. "We need the retailers to come to the table to help us."
Investigators found Ross goods at 11 factories, the most of any retailer. They found Forever 21 and TJ Maxx items at seven factories.
Rosalez said he has already conducted meetings with the offending retailers and they acknowledged a problem, but they have't gone far enough to solve it; There's nothing the agency can do to penalize retailers.
"We need them to take that next step and actually have a full monitoring program and work with us," said Rosalez.
Forever 21 and Ross issued statements saying that they do take the violations seriously.
"Forever 21 takes these issues very seriously, and requires all of its vendors to comply with these laws," the company said in a statement. "Forever 21 does not own or operate any of the third party vendors or contractors involved. These entities are completely independent of Forever 21 and make independent business decisions."
Ross issued a similar statement: "Ross Stores takes labor issues very seriously and we require our suppliers to uphold our ethical standards."
Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association, said every industry employs some workers off the books, and she questioned the methodology of the Department of Labor's study.
"It's not random," she said. "It's targeted to those who have offended before."
But she said retailers can do a much better job of making sure their goods come from factories that treat workers fairly.
"There's no excuse," she said.
The offenders the Labor Department found in its investigation of 77 factories include Roger Garments in Montebello, which makes products for Macy's. The factory owed $93,000 in overtime and minimum wage back wages for 44 workers. Investigators also found 37 employees were due nearly $87,000 in unpaid wages at Los Angeles-based garment contractor EVE LA Inc, which makes goods for the online retailer Nasty Girl. Workers there were paid flat weekly salaries of just $270 for 50 hour work weeks.
This post has been updated to include statements from Forever 21 and Ross.