By Larry Neumeister
The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — On Feb. 12, garment workers celebrated a jury verdict that they say will put more than a half million dollars in the pockets of 25 workers and open the door for scores of others to be paid proper wages.
The jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan returned the verdict against Liberty Apparel and two of its owners after a 10-year court battle.
A judge tossed the lawsuit out in 2002, but it was reinstated on appeal.
The $589,331 awarded to the garment workers was meant to make up for thousands of hours worked at less than minimum wage and without overtime compensation.
The workers assembled at the offices of the Chinese Staff & Workers Association on Feb. 12 to celebrate with their lawyers, who won the three-week trial in a courthouse several blocks from the Chinatown office.
“This case is going to impact every single shop in the garment industry,” said Ling Nan Zheng, speaking through a translator on behalf of the rest of the workers, who jurors found should receive between $2,000 and $40,000 apiece depending on their circumstances.
James Reif, a lawyer for the workers, said the plaintiffs had remained in touch and stayed interested in the case even though nothing happened for years at a time.
In his closing argument just days earlier, Reif had told jurors about workers who were often paid much less than minimum wage with no hope for overtime even as they logged 12-hour to 14-hour shifts six to seven days a week.
“The factory where plaintiffs worked was in common parlance a sweatshop, a place where the labor of the plaintiffs was sweated out of them for pennies per piece,” he said. “The industry today, as it was in an earlier era, is still built on cutthroat competition.”
Attorney Will Levins had argued on behalf of the defendants that Liberty, which produced about 100,000 garments a week, and two men who owned the company should not be held responsible for the practices of a subcontractor who operated the factory where the workers made garments.
After the verdict, Levins said the defendants are considering an appeal.
Vano I. Haroutunian, another lawyer for the defendants, said he was surprised by the verdict.
He said it will mean manufacturers will have to worry about the practices of their subcontractors, creating another layer of regulation and higher costs.
“The consequences could be pretty detrimental to an industry that has already been shrinking in this city and this country in general,” he said.
Haroutunian said his clients believed any violation of labor laws was reprehensible, but they did not believe they could be held responsible for the practices of others. (end)
Do you think that the verdict of the jury was right? Should Liberty be held responsible for the practices of their subcontractors? What could this mean for the U.S. garment industry?