January 18, 2019

Sewing Controversy At Museum of Tolerance

Visitors to the Museum of Tolerance expect to encounter evidence of brutality and organized evil. The current third floor exhibit, built around a reconstruction of a slave factory with barbed wire, and featuring video testimonials from survivors, seems predictable enough.

Yet the events documented didn’t happen in Eastern Europe during the 1940s. The victims were rescued by government authorities, and the illegal garment factory imprisoning 73 Thai workers was located in El Monte, California in the early 1990s.

“Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present,” the controversial exhibit that opened on Nov. 15 at the Museum of Tolerance, examines mostly garment working conditions within the context of human rights.

Originally shown at Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History in 1998, the exhibit has evoked intense debate over its appropriateness, balance and perspective. That it was sponsored in part by the UNITE garment workers union during UNITE’s media campaign against clothing sweatshops in the Third World has led the fashion industry to continually question the exhibit’s objectivity.

The Aug. 1999 decision to mount a slightly revised version at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance has provoked more questions.

For Liebe Geft, the relatively new director of the Museum of Tolerance, the connection between sweatshops and the museum’s core mission seems clear. “The issues pertain to the dignity of human beings,” she said, adding, “the apparel industry is part of our story.” Some museum board members agree. Others remain skeptical and worry that the world-class Holocaust museum may have misstepped.

“I’m quite disappointed,” said Bernard Melamed, a Jewish activist and past president of Los Angeles Congregation B’nai Brith, who lobbied against the exhibit. In a May 14 letter to Simon Wiesenthal Center Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier, Melamed wrote, “I feel the exhibit is harmful to the Center, the Jewish garment industry, and the Jewish community. It’s biased and one-sided.”

Several individuals who didn’t want to be quoted for this story expressed similar reservations. “Why isn’t this at the Museum of Science and Industry?” said one.

Acknowledging the complicated situation of Jewish involvement in the fashion industry and possible misperceptions caused by the exhibit, Geft said, “We are extremely mindful of [the criticisms]. These issues are not one-sided, but are very complicated. The whole exhibit goes beyond victims and villains.” Geft notes that today the garment industry continues to provide immigrants employment opportunities sewing and selling clothes.

“A sweatshop is more than a lousy job,” begins the brochure text that accompanies the exhibit. “Although there is no single, precise definition, [sweatshop] generally refers to a workplace where relatively unskilled workers toil long hours for meager pay in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.” Noting that the term originated in the tailoring trade during the 19th century, the brochure notes that “sweatshops exist in other industries as well.”

The opening section, “1820-1880: The Seamstress,” exclusively displays items from the apparel industry, and juxtaposes visuals of middle class women wearing fancy dresses and poor women working at sewing machines.

Section two, “1880-1940: Tenement Sweatshops” also examines garment industry practices and reform efforts. Highlighting the role of Jewish and Italian women, the panel describes how, “fierce competition among contractors for work and immigrants’ desperate need for employment kept wages down and hours up.” The Triangle Shirt factory fire, union efforts to organize the apparel industry, and the Franklin Roosevelt Administration’s pro-labor policies are documented with photographs, shirts, and union posters.

The third and most controversial section, “1940-Present: The Resurgence of Sweatshops” combines pamphlets, pajamas, and archival photographs to illustrate changing conditions in the apparel industry. During the 1940s and 1950s, wages and conditions improved, but the increased reliance on contracting work out and the global economy since the late 1960s have lead to some less positive developments. Although the exhibit brochure carefully notes that “similar conditions persist in a variety of industries,” almost all of the visuals describe garment industry sweatshops.

The large reconstruction, with barbed wire, of the slave-like conditions at the El Monte factory raided by federal officials in 1995 dominates this section. Freed Thai workers describe their imprisonment and rescue on the videotape playing in the background. The display lends itself to immediate emotional and mental connections to other museum exhibits with barbed wire, work camps, and prisoners.

Around the corner, a colorful world map entitled “The Fashion Food Chain” shows countries involved in the complex global system of manufacturing and retailing clothes. The average wage per hour, for example, in China is listed as 28 cents and the average apparel hourly wage in the United States as $9.56. Nearby, a short video celebrates the competitiveness of the American apparel industry because of the trained workforce, excellent technology, and ability to quickly respond to changes in the fast changing fashion industry.

The museum has added a short videotape to the exhibit. Donated by the industry’s California Fashion Association, it showcases the humanitarian efforts of the California fashion industry. A factsheet on the fashion industry in Los Angeles County notes that its wholesale volume is $17.2 billion, that the apparel and textile industries account for approximately 125,900 jobs, and that an additional 850 textile-related businesses (printing, dyeing, and finishing) employ another 16,000 workers. “Fashion, and related sewn products, is the largest manufacturing sector in Los Angeles, and the second largest over-all for California,” says the factsheet.

The industry contributions, said museum officials, were added to “broaden the dialogue.” But exhibit critics scoff at the exhibit’s supporters’ assertion of objectivity.

“It’s unbalanced and incomplete,” said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association. “There is nothing related to the legitimate fashion industry in Los Angeles. The exhibit was bought and paid for by UNITE and the Department of Labor.”

“The Museum offered us a piece if we paid for it,” she said. “We’re a non-profit, we didn’t have the budget for it, and we passed.” According to Metchek, the price for an opinion statement in the original exhibit would have been between $5,000-$20,000.”

According to Geft, the Smithsonian sold sponsorships to the exhibit, which allowed industry sponsors such as TV host and fashion promoter Kathy Lee Gifford and the Levi Strauss company to add their comments to the show. In Los Angeles, Wiesenthal officials sought out unpaid-for input from the fashion industry, said Geft. “We wanted new perspectives and other voices,” she said.

But Metchek faults the exhibit for saying “nothing about the tremendous progress made in the last three years due to increased compliance monitoring, and no discussion of solutions.” For example, the most recent Department of Labor statistics document a dramatic decline in workplace violations. Despite UNITE’s sponsorship, the union , according to Metchek, “is irrelevant” in Los Angeles garment industry since the union has fewer than 1,000 members in California and only 446 members in Los Angeles City.

“There is no direct relationship between sweatshops and what appears in the malls,” adds Metchek. Partially agreeing with that criticism, Geft observes, “It’s very clear that El Monte came more from the exploitation of immigrants than the nature of the apparel industry. We don’t tell people what to think, but we want them to think about the extremely complicated and difficult issues.”

Likewise, Geft readily concedes that “sweatshops exist across several industries and are not isolated to the garment industry.” Nor does Geft, despite the UNITE sponsorshi
p believe that unionization is the automatic solution. “There are union shops that are just as guilty of violations as non-union shops.”

Does the current exhibit reflect those complexities? That, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

Sponsored in part by an aggressive union in the apparel industry, the exhibit certainly seems to cast as much blame as shed light.

“These issues are so complicated,” says Geft, giving an example from fashion industry lawyer Steve Levy. “Take the situation of a 14 year old girl in Southeast Asia working six days a week, 72 hours a week in a factory. That sounds cruel, but what are her other options? She can work seven days a week in agriculture from sun up to sun down. She can be sold into servitude. She can become a prostitute… Everything is relative.”

In a similar vein, Metchek acknowledges that sweatshops exist in Los Angeles’ massive underground economy. “There is a huge underground garment economy,” says Metchek. “They are our worst competitors.” The four shirts for $10 at Venice Beach vendors, for example, usually come from shops that employ undocumented workers and sometimes pay less than minimum wage. “Nobody wants sweatshops in any industry. Sweatshops are an outgrowth of illegal immigration.” Metchik notes that working conditions are far safer in the fashion industry than construction, agriculture, and other fields where heavy machinery is routinely used.

“Beyond the problems, what are some of the solutions?” asks Metchek.

He ironically noted that exhibit corporate sponsors Kmart and Levi Strauss no longer have clothing manufacturing factories in the United States. “Kmart makes virtually nothing here, and Levi Strauss closed their last plant last year.” Expressing dismay and some exasperation, Metchek emphasizes the need to protect Los Angeles’ largest manufacturing industry.

“We have the ability to bring manufacturing back,” he continues. “It’s not all terrific in Mexico and in China. Retailers want products fast and on time. They would prefer quick time production. Let’s put the spotlight on what is made in the United States and Los Angeles.” The recent trade agreement with China, according to The New York Times, will probably lead to a loss of 150,000 textile jobs in the United States.

What are solutions? According to Metchik, “compliance monitoring, increased enforcement, closer State and City cooperation” are part of the answer.

Surprisingly, Metchek also finds common ground with some union activists on another, broader solution. “We could have a possible amnesty for undocumented workers gainfully employed in the industry for three years,” he observes. “They would suddenly become legal workers and could work in legitimate shops where they could be able to make the money they deserve.” Metchek notes that La Opinion regularly runs five columns of classified ads for employment in legitimate clothing shops where green cards are required.

In addition to UNITE and Kmart, other exhibition sponsors include the Council for Excellence in Government, Dura Cost Products, Inc, Leonard and Joan Beerman Peace Fund, the Leo Baeck Temple Foundation, Milberg, Weiss Bershad, Hynes &Lerach LLP, Southern California Gas Co., Ted and Rita Williams Foundation, Susan Choo & John Kades, Hyundai Motor America, Pacific Bell, and the Edwin Weinrot and Irene Weinrot Philanthropic Fund. The exhibit runs to March 2000.