A Long Island City clothing manufacturer has been accused of swindling its employees out of more than $5 million in minimum and overtime wages by the state Labor Department, which alleged that the garment distributor forced its employees to memorize cheat sheets of information to dupe investigators.
Labor Department Commissioner Patricia Smith said the state has cited Jin Shun Inc., owner of Urban Apparel at 47-51 33rd St., for allegedly underpaying more than 100 employees who live along the No. 7 subway line so more than $3 million in wages since 2005.
The garment maker — which produces clothing for retailers like Macy's, the Gap, Banana Republic, Express and Victoria's Secret — also allegedly owes workers another $2.5 million in back wages prior to 2005, when it operated under the name Venture 47, Smith said.
"This factory paid sweatshop wages, kept fake records, and coached employees to lie, even though it had signed retailer codes of conduct to comply with the law. The Department of Labor will use all legal tools to stop this mistreatment of workers," Smith said.
Each of the retailers listed by the Department of Labor issued statements following the bust, condemning the violations and reaffirming their commitment to fair labor practices.
"We are committed to continuing to improve our procedures and programs and we have a policy of zero tolerance for those vendors and factories that are unwilling or unable to work with us to achieve such compliance," said Jennifer Ortiz Brown of Limited Brands.
Smith said Shun, the company's owner, allegedly had his employees punch two time cards during the week — one from Monday to Wednesday and another for the rest of the week.
When investigators asked for time cards, Shun would provide only the first card, according to Smith, which indicated they were working 30 to 40 hours per week. In reality, Smith said workers at Urban Apparel were working upward of 70 hours a week and receiving below minimum wage rates.
"It was pretty bad," said one former worker, who asked not to be identified. "We in actuality made about $3 to $4 an hour. We were told to lie. We were told to minimize our working hours."
Former workers interviewed by the TimesLedger said the company's more than 100 employees lived mostly in Queens, coming from neighborhoods mainly along the No. 7 subway line such as Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Corona and Flushing.
The workers said they were forced to memorize a cheat sheet, which gave a series of answers to give if they were questioned by investigators.
"You work less than 40 hours per week with earnings between $100 and $200. How do you survive? Does your husband work?" read one of the alleged cheat sheets, acquired by the Labor Department. "My husband has another job. I am not the main source of income."
Smith said the Labor Department tagged more than 10,000 garments at the Long Island City factory, which labels them as unlawfully manufactured goods. Within hours of the tagging, Smith said Urban Apparel paid $60,000 in underpayments to have the tags removed.
The case has been handed over to the Queens district attorney's Office, which is investigating possible criminal charges.
"Our message to retailers and manufacturers is that cursory inspection in monitoring factories is not enough. We in government are getting more aggressive in ensuring that suppliers abide by the law. While you may require your suppliers to abide by strict codes of conduct, these codes do workers no good if they are not aggressively enforced," Smith said.
Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.
©2008 Community News Group
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