Workers who make Schenectady’s firefighter uniforms in China have told a workers rights group that they are being forced to manufacture the protective clothing in an illegal sweatshop.
The complaints were published this week in a report by the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State. The report included interviews from dozens of workers at 12 factories in nine countries.
Only one of those factories is directly connected to Schenectady. The city buys its firefighter jackets from Fechheimer Brothers Company, which gets the uniforms from the independently-owned Hui Yang Charming Garments factory in Huizhou City, China.
After the Schenectady City Council passed an ordinance last year requiring all city vendors to certify that their apparel was not made in sweatshops, Fechheimer told city officials that it inspected the factory and found it offered decent working conditions in accordance with China’s laws. But in the Labor-Religion Coalition’s report, workers said they were instructed to lie to Fechheimer’s inspectors. They said managers threatened to fire them if they told the truth.
Mayor Brian U. Stratton Thursday said he had not seen the report and could not comment on it.
The coalition’s sweatfree coordinator, Jordan Wells, said the workers’ reports make it clear that companies can’t inspect the factories themselves. He said company-paid inspectors don’t want to cause problems for their bosses by reporting malfeasance at the overseas factories.
And, he said, local governments don’t have the resources to verify the companies’ claims. The coalition is now calling for an independent inspector, funded by the state, to monitor factories throughout the world.
Wells stressed that his group doesn’t want anyone to cancel their contracts with textile companies that buy from overseas factories. Some critics have suggested that the coalition is trying to drive more business to the few remaining U.S. textile factories, but Wells said any such effort would be pointless.
“Look, the [U.S.] textile industry is gone. It’s not going to come back,” he said. “The concept is not to just drop a contract with anybody who maintains a sweatshop — the reality is that this is standard for the textile industry now.”
He thinks a state-funded inspector could give local governments the information they need to pressure companies to improve working conditions overseas.
“We have to work with the most compliant bidders and the most interested in improving,” he said. “Only if they won’t try to improve would the contract be dropped.”
The coalition had been urging government buyers to adopt an ordinance requiring clothing vendors to certify that their factories were “sweatfree.” Schenectady was one of 185 cities, states and school districts that signed on last year. But the city continued its contract with Fechheimer, believing that the company had adequately inspected its Chinese factory.
Senior Vice President Fred Heldman told the city that his company isn’t responsible for the working conditions in Chinese plants since Fechheimer doesn’t own those plants. However, he said that the plant operators follow Chinese labor laws and that Fechheimer sends qualified individuals to monitor the plants.
But workers at the Hui Yang Charming Garments factory told interviewers that they regularly lie to the monitors. Fechheimer officials did not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday after the coalition’s report was released.
In mid-April, workers said, managers announced a “training session” to teach workers what to say to U.S. inspectors who were arriving for a pre-announced audit.
Workers said the managers told them, “Foreign customers emphasize human rights. If you answer auditors’ questions incorrectly, we get to lose orders and you get to lose your job.”
On the day of the audit, they said, managers also told all workers under the age of 16 to take the day off — and locked the factory gates so they couldn’t sneak in. Chinese labor laws prohibit anyone under the age of 16 from working, but workers said about 20 underage employees work at the factory.
They said managers also created fake wage stubs and hour sheets to show that each worker was paid the legal minimum and worked no more than 21 days a month.
Workers said that although they pretended the records were correct during the inspection, they are actually paid by piece, rather than by hour. The arrangement leaves them with a total salary that is well below the minimum wage during the slow season. At peak times, they said they can earn a salary that is double the minimum wage, but because they are not paid by the hour, they never receive overtime pay.
They would receive roughly 20 percent more salary if they were paid the minimum overtime required by Chinese law.
They also told the interviewers that in peak times, they regularly work 13 hours a day, 30 days a month. They said they are sometimes forced to stay as late as 3 a.m. as shipping deadlines approach — without getting paid for their time.
Workers said the factory bosses also kept them from quitting by refusing to pay them for their final month of work. Paychecks are always issued 21 days after the work is completed, so workers never have the option of walking out with all of their back pay.
“In effect, those workers who might want to leave must forfeit 20 days of wages,” interviewers said in the report.
The entire report, entitled “Subsidizing Sweatshops,” can be found online at http://www.sweatfree.org/subsidizing/.