They come to take our jobs? Then we don't pay them?

What has this country come to? The U.S. Labor Department Wage and Hour Division said this week that Los Angeles was, by far, the nation's capital of underpaying garment workers, a group largely comprised of immigrants. Garment workers were shorted $3,004,085 during the 2014 fiscal year, the department said.

Almost all were based “in and around Los Angeles,” the feds said in a statement. That pencils out to an average of $1,900 for each of the 1,549 employees who complained that they had been stiffed by their bosses. 



One theory is that, even though L.A.'s thriving fashion district contributes to the city's title as the manufacturing capital of America, low-cost clothing imports made by low-wage workers in Asia have pressured makers here to cut costs so they can compete.

In one case, federal officials said they found that L.A. area workers were being paid $270 a week for about 50 hours a week of work. Though some employers pay “by the piece,” feds warned that “at least” the $7.25 federal minimum wage (it's $9 in California) must apply to all work. And working more than 40 hours a week means overtime.

David Weil, administrator for the Wage and Hour Division:

Fierce competition in the garment industry leads many contract shops to lower the cost of their services, frequently at the expense of workers’ wages. 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.

The industry was already rife with minimum wage and overtime violations, the department says, but that things have been especially bad between 2009 and now, when $15 million in unpaid wages have been recovered:

Credit: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

Credit: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

The apparel industry typically employs large populations of immigrants with limited English language proficiency who are unaware of their rights or are reluctant to speak up. This makes them particularly vulnerable to labor violations.

The department says it has “stepped up surveillance” of downtown L.A.'s fashion district and other industry locales in Southern California. Federal investigators will even go so far as to sell off the property of employers if they don't pay up, U.S. labor officials said.

Ruben Rosalez, administrator for the Wage and Hour Division’s Western Region, says, “We are committed to strong enforcement.”

There will be so many government eyes on the fashion district these days that the feds might as well sew a few pieces themselves while they're camped out. 

Last month federal officials said there was so much laundered drug money connected to L.A.'s fashion district that they would now be requiring “additional reporting and record-keeping obligations” for many if not most of the business in the area.

Feds, in fact, seized $90 million as part of a wide-ranging laundering probe focused mainly on the fashion district. Much of it was in cash.

We're pretty sure the cartels were paid maximum wage, however.

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow LA Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.