The Unfashionable Mr. Lam

He’s no union leader, lawyer, or human rights investigator. But for the people who labor in the garment sweatshops of New York’s Chinatown, Wing Lam is as close as it gets.

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The headquarters of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association is situated a few blocks east of New York’s City Hall. To get to it, you enter through 15 Catherine Street, a grim tenement sandwiched between a fish stall and a Chinese bakery. You then climb a narrow metal staircase, leave the building through a back door above the second floor, and cross an open bridge made of steel plates. This bridge leads down to a second building, which was originally designed for storage and is completely cut off from the street. The arrangement has certain obvious disadvantages, but a few years ago, when someone hoping to intimidate Chinese Staff tried to set fire to the place from above, it fortuitously turned out that the ceiling was made of concrete and wouldn’t burn.

The headquarters is one large room that has been divided into several smaller ones by a series of wooden partitions. Wing Lam, the association’s executive director, has his own office—a tiny, closet-like affair almost entirely taken up by legal files—but he rarely occupies it. Instead, he can usually be found in the main room, where two battered metal desks have been pushed together to form an approximation of a conference table. One day this spring, I found him sitting at the desks, clutching a manila envelope.

Lam, who is 52, has a broad face, longish hair that is constantly flopping down over his eyes, and prominent front teeth. He speaks idiosyncratic English, weeps easily, and, in his own quiet way, can talk almost uninterruptedly for hours at a stretch. As soon as I sat down, Lam opened the manila envelope and pulled out a glossy picture of a man named Jian Wen Liang.

Liang had operated a pair of garment factories in Brooklyn that manufactured women’s sportswear. He had paid his workers by the piece, had often demanded that they put in 100-hour weeks without overtime, and had systematically skimmed 5 percent from their wages. The picture showed Liang being led off to jail on March 5, apparently in handcuffs. Whenever someone new would come into the office, Lam would slide the photo out of the envelope to show it off. “My trophy,” he said, chuckling.

Lam could be called a labor organizer, and Chinese Staff a labor organization, although neither term would be entirely adequate. Chinese Staff serves as an intermediary between immigrant workers and labor enforcement agencies, acting as a goad to both sides. Without its encouragement, many workers would be too scared to file complaints against their employers, and without its constant pestering, many prosecutors wouldn’t follow up on them.

In New York’s Chinese-language newspapers, the Liang case was big news. The last time anyone could remember a similar prosecution was a decade ago, when another sweatshop owner, Stanley Chang, had become the first garment-factory owner in state history imprisoned for nonpayment of wages. Liang’s punishment even made English-language papers like the New York Daily News, which published the story under the headline “Buttonholed at Last.”

In general, Liang’s sentence— 90 days and a $10,000 fine—was taken as a sign of the peculiar viciousness of his conduct. He had, the News asserted, operated “some of the worst garment sweatshops in the city.” It would probably be closer to the truth, however, to describe his tactics as fairly typical. Liang ended up in jail because he was peculiarly stubborn, and quite possibly also stupid, but mostly because he was unlucky, this last quality having mainly to do with the fact that he had run up against Wing Lam.

One afternoon when I arrived at Chinese Staff’s office, Lam was sitting at the desks with a group of half a dozen women. A collection of clothes labels was spread out before them. The women were grim-faced and Lam looked tense. They were speaking to one another in Chinese, and it seemed clear from everyone’s body language that Lam was reading the women the riot act.

After the visitors had packed up their labels and left, Lam explained that the group had come to him earlier complaining about a factory owner who owed them nearly $100,000 in back wages. Then he hadn’t heard from them for several months. Lam had been trying to impress on the women that they weren’t going to get their money without fighting for it. Once Chinese Staff determines that a complaint is justified, its chief concern in deciding to pursue a case—either by filing a lawsuit or by bringing it to the attention of prosecutors—is whether the workers will stick through what can be years of court dates and hearings. “We want them to understand: We are not like government,” Lam told me. “They got to be involved.”

A lot of workers bring the stories of their hardships to Lam, thinking that he will be moved by their suffering and will try to solve their problems for them. This is only partly correct. Lam is interested in solving their problems but not, as they might like, quietly, through back channels. Lam used to give his business card to nearly everyone he met, but a few years ago, he discovered that workers were simply flashing his card as a way to win better treatment. Now, he rarely hands out cards. “The main thing: We ask workers’ commitment to help other workers,” he says. “That’s the only way we have strength.”

Much of Lam’s work is anachronistic; the labor conditions he is fighting have been illegal for more than half a century. But having a law on the books and having it enforced are, in this case, two entirely different things. At any given moment, there are more than 3,000 garment factories operating in New York City, and it is estimated that two-thirds of them violate such basic labor standards as paying the minimum wage or compensating workers for overtime. In Los Angeles, there are some 5,000 gar-ment shops, and there, too, the majority are believed to be sweat-shops. Similarly in the restaurant trade—the other main occupation of recent Chinese immigrants—it is routine for workers to get less than the minimum wage, to put in seven-day weeks, and to be forced to give up part of their tips to their bosses. Restaurant work-ers come to Chinese Staff for help from as far away as Florida.

Lam has no legal training, and Chinese Staff has no lawyers; nevertheless, the group is constantly generating lawsuits against employers—as many as a hundred a year—most of which are handled by attorneys from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and from big firms that donate time pro bono. “Wing thinks that if you fight hard enough and long enough you can change the system,” says Ken Kimerling, the fund’s legal director. “He’s given people an opportunity to fight back who otherwise would have just gone on being victims.”

Over the years, Chinese Staff has had many legal victories, in cases involving everything from nonpayment of wages to extortion. Probably its biggest win was a $1.1 million judgment against one of Chinatown’s most prominent restaurants, Jing Fong, in 1997; after much legwork by Chinese Staff, the state attorney general successfully sued the restaurant for cheating nearly five dozen workers out of tips and wages. It is these occasional triumphs that keep Lam going, Kimerling speculates, in a trade where long-term improvements in working conditions remain elusive. Especially in the garment industry, he observes, “it’s hard to see major changes, except the other way.”

Lam is, in addition to lawsuits, an enthusiast of protests, boycotts, and pickets. One picket line he helped organize, in front of the Silver Palace restaurant in lower Manhattan, has been in place for so long now that the placards are in tatters and the cardboard coffin, which is supposed to symbolize the death of “slave labor,” has developed a permanent sag. In its complexity and its sheer duration, the Silver Palace picket is an exemplary Lam crusade. (Once, when I asked him how he could possibly remember the intricacies of his many campaigns, Lam waved his hands in front of his face, a gesture that conveyed the recognition that he was, in this respect, not entirely normal.) The battle began back in August 1993, when a group of Silver Palace workers challenged the restaurant’s practice of confiscating part of each day’s tips. It continued through a seven-month lockout, an unrelated legal dispute that revealed that the owners were keeping two sets of books, and a lawsuit by the state attorney general on behalf of the workers. In 1995 and 1996, a state court and the National Labor Relations Board awarded the workers a combined $1.1 million; at that point, the restaurant declared bankruptcy and was reorganized, ostensibly under new management. Five years later, not a dollar of the award has been paid.

Lam recounted the saga of the Silver Palace to me one bitter cold evening when I was preparing to go out with the picketers. Chinese Staff has only five full-time employees (whose salaries are paid by membership dues and foundation grants), but every time I visited, the office was filled with volunteers—old men, young women with babies, and college students, many, but not all of them, Chinese. On this particular evening, there was a great deal of bustle as several of the restaurant’s “dim sum ladies,” together with a collection of volunteers, assembled their gear. I asked Lam whether he found the story of the Silver Palace disheartening. “I’m pretty stubborn,” he said.

Lam discovered labor organizing in an accidental sort of way. In 1978, he was working as a shipping clerk in a Long Island City garment factory when, together with another clerk, he learned that the workers were getting paid 50 cents an hour less than their contract required. The factory was a union shop, so the two men took their finding to the union’s leaders, who vowed to get to the bottom of the matter. A union representative came to visit the factory and the next day, Lam says, “all the big mouths get the pink slip.”

Lam is reluctant to reveal a great deal about his life outside work. When I first approached him late last year, he kept suggesting to me that I write about someone else in the labor movement instead. Eventually, I learned that Lam had been born in Tianjin, had lived in Hong Kong and, later, Brazil. His mother had been a seamstress and his father had worked a variety of odd jobs including, at one point, selling ice cream. Lam arrived in the United States at age 17, speaking virtually no English, but managed to get a degree in electrical engineering, a subject he says he found “boring.”

After losing his job in Long Island City, he went to work for the same union—the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ilgwu)—that he believed had be- trayed him. (The union is now called unite.) According to Lam, the only reason he got the job was the union’s belief that “the best treatment for the troublemaker is to take them in,” and the only reason he took it was that he needed the money. The job involved hiring himself out as a garment worker in order to organize a shop from the inside. Lam found he was quite good at garment work, particularly pressing, but not good at getting along with his bosses. In his three years with the union, he managed to get himself fired twice.

While Lam was still with the ilgwu, a group of workers formed Chinese Staff to push for more effective representation from the white-run trade unions, and Lam acted as an adviser. “Union just for show” is a favored phrase of Lam’s, and it is true that while many of the garment factories in Chinatown are unionized, this has not prevented widespread labor-law violations.

For its part, unite is equally critical of Lam, saying that he ought to be working with the union, not against it. Steven Weingarten, unite’s industrial director, says the union is about to launch a campaign to put pressure on retailers and manufacturers who subcontract with sweatshops. “We’ve got an enormous problem, and the question is, How do we build a strategy that shifts power back to the workers?” he says. Weingarten acknowledges that many garment shops do not fully comply with their union contracts, but maintains that if unite pushed harder, the shops would simply shut down. This argument—that the union cannot enforce its own contracts because it would drive work away—is precisely what infuriates Lam.

Official New York views Chinese Staff’s efforts with decidedly mixed emotions. The group’s work is essential to many labor-law prosecutions, like the Liang case, which according to one of the prosecutors involved would never have gone to court had Lam not convinced the workers to testify. By the same token, Lam is never satisfied; frequently he attacks the very government agencies he is assisting. “He’s always demanding a little more of you,” the prosecutor says. “He’ll say, ÔWhy didn’t you do that one as a felony?’ He calls once a week with a new case or a possibility.”

“There are people who attack him left and right, but he sticks by it,” says Louis Vanegas, the district director of the U.S. Labor Department’s wage and hour division for New York. “He’s persistent.” Vanegas says he has seen many immigrant workers’ groups form, only to get discouraged and give up within a few years. Lam and Chinese Staff, he notes, have stayed the course for two decades. “People get burned out in that kind of work very fast,” Vanegas says. “But Wing has maintained the stamina.”

In certain segments of Chinatown, Lam is quite openly despised. In early 1995, Chinese Staff organized a picket line in front of Jing Fong, after a waiter who had challenged the restaurant’s practice of docking tips was fired. Later, a group of students staged a hunger strike in front of the restaurant, which can seat about a thousand people. A few months into the battle, an ad appeared in several Chinatown newspapers featuring a picture of Lam; the caption called him “the devil that is destroying the Chinatown economy.” Around the same time, signs went up in front of the restaurant rendering Lam’s Chinese name, Lam Shung, as “Lam Jung,” which means “near death.” It was at that point that Lam started parking his car in a garage, rather than on the street.

During the battle over Jing Fong, flyers were circulated that accused Lam of extorting tens of thousands of dollars from various restaurant owners. Though no evidence was ever produced to corroborate this accusation, in Chinatown the flyers succeeded in sowing doubt about Lam’s motives. In 1996, Lam sued the management of Jing Fong for libel. When the case finally came to trial last winter, one of the owners testified that life in Chinatown would be better if Lam were, in fact, dead. The jury found that Lam had been libeled but was due no damages.

One winter evening when I stopped by Chinese Staff’s office, Lam was talking to a young woman with a sad face and a tiny scar at the corner of her mouth. He told me that the young woman had an “interesting story,” which I took to mean that she was miserable, and with him translating, she agreed to recount it for me, minus certain details, such as her name, that could be of use to the ins. The young woman was in her 20s—she declined to be more specific—and had been brought into the country five years ago by a smuggler who had arranged for her passage by way of Mexico. She had grown up near Fuzhou, a port city in southeastern China, where her mother worked in a factory and her father worked for the government. Although her family was not affluent, they were not poor. She explained her decision to come to the United States by saying, through Lam, “Everybody says America very good.” In fact, she had found life here very hard. When I asked if she would have come had she known what she knows now, she said, “I don’t know.”

The young woman had wanted a job in New York, but hadn’t been able to find one and had ended up in a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey. She was making about $100 a day, $18 of which she had to give back to her boss. Meanwhile, she owed her smugglers $30,000. Eventually she left that job, and now she was working in a restaurant in Pennsylvania. There she was earning even less than she had in New Jersey.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, most of New York’s Chinatown was Cantonese; today, new immigrants are increasingly Fuzhounese, and East Broadway south of Canal is commonly referred to as “Fuzhou Street.” Like the young woman, a lot of these new immigrants come with huge debts to notoriously unsympathetic creditors. More established Chinese immigrants tend to blame these newcomers—the wu sun fin, or “people without status”—for driving down wages for everyone. Lam, too, says that wages have been falling in Chinatown and that the influx of new immigrants is partly responsible; lacking legal protection, they often feel they have no choice but to accept illegal working conditions. In Chinese, he points out, smugglers of illegal immigrants are known as “snakeheads” and their charges as “snakes.”

“Where you can find a snake?” he asks. “Under something. Very dark, very wet. That’s where the snake goes. No-law land.”

But for Lam, the Fuzhounese are, in their desperation, no different really from every other low-wage earner. “People think work is better than no work,” he told me. “Unfortunately, the real truth is, even if you work 14 hours, someone is willing to work 16 hours.” It is this same logic, in essence, that underlies American labor law: The minimum wage and the 40-hour week are supposed to make it impossible for factory hands and seamstresses to undersell one another. One of the results, of course, is that millions of jobs have moved overseas, where no such obstacles exist.

This dilemma is well understood in Chinatown. Often workers are the only good source of information about what is going on in a garment factory or a restaurant kitchen, and typically they refuse to talk. Indeed, sometimes they will go so far as to rally in support of the bosses accused of exploiting them: One of the stranger twists in the Liang case came when the Labor Department impounded some of the illegally manufactured clothes. Dozens of workers marched on the department’s offices, demanding that the clothing be released. Lam’s response to this frustrating reality has been to expand his ambitions. Along with the seamstress earning $3 an hour, he maintains that office workers and freelancers who work without benefits are also sweatshop workers, as is anyone who accepts inadequate wages or ridiculously long hours in order to keep a job. Among his many goals is to transform mothering into a paid profession, compensated somehow by the government.

“People only want to settle for what is possible,” he says.

Situated just a few miles east of Chinatown, Sunset Park is an unremarkable Brooklyn neighborhood of attached two-story houses bisected by a busy commercial strip. At one point, the area was populated by Scandinavians, and it is still possible to find a few traces of this era, like the Norwegian flag on the sign for the Sporting Club Gj¿a. Overwhelmingly, though, the neighborhood is now Chinese, and the businesses along the strip bear names that translate along the lines of “Million Gold Barber Center” and “Chungyuan Herb Corp.” For the last five years, Chinese Staff has operated a satellite office in Sunset Park in what was once a pizzeria—there are still “his” and “hers” bathrooms and a mirrored wall left over from the previous tenant—and a few months ago I arranged to meet Lam there.

Most of the garment factories are found at the southern edge of Sunset Park in a commercial zone given over to old warehouses and auto dealerships. When I asked Lam to tell me what I should look for if I wanted to find a sweatshop, he laughed and said, “Look anywhere.” In front of one building, we saw two women carrying a heavy load in a brown sack. Lam identified the load as clothes that had been sewn in someone’s home, or homework, which is illegal. In front of another building, a truck was parked and men were unloading boxes of plastic hangers.

Liang’s sentence had just been handed down a few days earlier and I wanted to see some of his factories, a project that turned out to be more complicated than I had anticipated. At one point, to try to help me understand the whole tangle, Lam pulled out a piece of scrap paper—a flyer announcing a picket of a new Donna Karan store. (The flyer accused Donna Karan of using sweatshop labor in New York to manufacture $6,000 dresses, an allegation dkny denies.) On the back of the flyer, Lam drew a map of the area with dates and names and arrows pointing in various directions. One of Liang’s factories had changed its name at least twice, and another had three different addresses in a matter of just a few years, all within five blocks of one another.

To avoid giving Liang any ammunition against him, Lam refused to go into any of the factories Liang had operated or that he suspected him of operating still. But he did agree to show me where they were. In one case I got as far as the building’s entryway, which was being used to store bags of shirred fabric in pink-and-purple plaid. In a corner, there was a shrine with a statue of Confucius and an offering of oranges. A heavy curtain covered the entrance to the factory floor. Almost as soon as I lifted it, an elderly man came toward me uttering what I took to be imprecations in Chinese.

Walking down the street, I tried, more or less at random, the doors of nearly a dozen buildings. I began to recognize the sweatshops by their windows—or, more precisely, by the lack of them. Some of the doors were locked; the rest opened into rooms filled with piles of precut fabric, and rows and rows of women hunched over sewing machines. I realized that I had probably walked by dozens of similar shops before without noticing them, which is, of course, exactly what Lam is talking about.


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