Chinatown garment workers awarded $1.2 million

Updated: 2014-05-17 06:05

By AMY HE in New York (China Daily USA)

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Thirteen Chinese garment workers have been awarded $1.2 million in damages for unpaid wages while working at a clothing factory between 2005 and 2010 in New York’s Chinatown.

Federal Judge P. Kevin Castel in Manhattan issued the award on Wednesday in a lawsuit brought in May 2011 by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) on behalf of the workers.

"There are a few more things that have to be done in court, and then we will do everything we can to obtain that money," Ken Kimerling, AALDEF legal director and the attorney who represented the garment workers, told China Daily.

"Not all of the garments made for American manufacturers are made overseas. Garment sweatshops still exist in Manhattan, and workers are still not being paid overtime and minimum wages," he said in a statement. "This excellent decision shows that while some manufacturers may be spending more to monitor their work overseas, they still need to protect American workers as well."

The plaintiffs worked at the Walker Street Factory in Manhattan’s Chinatown making garments primarily for two retailers, Dress Barn and Lane Bryant. They were paid by piece and were not paid minimum wage or receive overtime pay, according to the suit.

"In large measure, [the suit] was based on the fact that they were owed wages, not even considering they were counted as overtime or minimum wage. They weren’t necessarily thinking about that so much as the fact that over the last few years, the boss wasn’t regularly paying them, so he owed them all money," Kimerling said. "He had promised them that he would pay them, and then the factory closes and he runs away without paying them."

The boss moved to China for some time and said that he had no money, but that wasn’t true, Kimerling said.

The plaintiffs worked 10 to 12 hours, six to seven days a week, and were owed $110,000 in unpaid wages, based on piece count, when the factory closed in 2010, according to the suit. The Walker Street Factory was known as the Broome Street Factory prior to relocating to 72 Walker Street.

Named as defendants in the suit were Jun Reng Zhou, Jin Xian Mei and four corporations that operated the factory for various periods of time. Zhou and Mei were identified as the factory boss and factory manager, respectively, in the suit, but they denied that in court testimony. The "real bosses came to the factory at night when no one was there, calculated the wages, and then left the checks and cash for the workers," according to their testimonies.

Castel deemed their testimonies "inconsistent and incredible" in making the award.

Shirley Liu, 40, who immigrated to the US in 1996, said that she and the other plaintiffs looked for help from the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, a non-profit organization that educates Chinese workers, and were referred to AALDEF.

"This is money we earned with our blood and sweat. We worked in 100 degree weather and weather below freezing, we have a right to that money," she told China Daily.

Liu said that she began working for Walker Street Factory after 9/11, when it was known as the Broome Street Factory. She said she had worked exclusively at garment factories after coming to the US.

Liu said that other plaintiffs in the suit work as house aides to the elderly, or have gone on to work at different garment factories that may have better labor practices. She is working at a laundromat.

"I’m probably never going to work at a garment factory again," she said.

Chinatown garment workers awarded $1.2 million
Kenneth Kimerling, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, represented 13 Chinese garment workers who were awarded $1.2 million in damages for unpaid wages in Manhattan. Amy He / China Daily