Immigrant Economies and New York City’s Garment Industry: Challenges for Community Development

By Tarry Hum

Despite its dramatic and continued decline, apparel production remains the largest manufacturing industry in New York City. It is viable, in large part, due to the mass influx of new immigrants “sweating” it out in cramped, poorly ventilated factories for a piece-rate that averages a dollar or so per assembled garment. The government employs a “carrot and stick” approach to the declining garment industry – rewarding legitimate firms with subsidies and technical assistance, while investigating and policing sweatshops to enforce minimum labor standards.

Sunset Park, Brooklyn is targeted for both the carrot and the stick. A series of raids conducted in 1996 focused public attention on its growing sweatshop economy and in 1998, it was designated to receive public funding for the development of a garment manufacturers incubator. But while the Asian and Latino immigrant community in Sunset Park may feel the stick, it is highly unlikely that they will dine on the carrot.

New York City’s Garment Industry

The massive deindustrialization of New York City has been accompanied by a simultaneous reindustrialization in the form of downgraded manufacturing, sweatshops, and industrial homework. Immigrant Asian and Latino workers are concentrated in these labor-intensive industries which produce garments, textiles, furniture, electronics, and footwear. Close to three-quarters of New York City’s garment production workers are from the People’s Republic of China, Dominican Republic, Mexico, or South Korea. Increasingly, multi-ethnic immigrant neighborhoods in New York’s outer boroughs, namely Brooklyn and Queens, have become important garment production sites as the corporate real estate market has expanded into historic manufacturing districts. Many immigrant contractors have moved their operations from Manhattan’s Chinatown to escape rising rents and a unionized workforce.

Sunset Park has emerged as a key production site in New York City’s apparel industry. Since the early 1980s, a growing segment of Sunset Park’s neighborhood economy has been fueled by small Asian and Latino immigrant-owned garment factories. There are approximately 500 to 600 garment factories in Sunset Park employing a labor force of well over 10,000 workers, the majority of whom are Chinese, Dominican, and Mexican immigrant women. An estimated one in two garment firms in Sunset Park is a sweatshop. An investigation into Sunset Park’s garment industry conducted by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in 1996 brought public attention to the prevalence of substandard work environments including blocked fire exits, lack of ventilation, and exposed wires. Community protests continue to expose numerous incidents of worker exploitation such as the withholding of wages in Sunset Park’s garment industry.

Recognizing the growth potential of Brooklyn’s garment industry due to transportation links, underutilized industrial spaces, and a ready labor supply, the Brooklyn Borough President conducted a study, to “identify the role that government can play in assisting Brooklyn’s garment industry to move into the twenty-first century.” The key recommendation was to develop a garment manufacturers incubator. In mid-summer 1997, Sunset Park was designated the site for the incubator.

The planning and development of the incubator suggests that Asian and Latino immigrants and their community development needs have been effectively marginalized. The garment manufacturer’s incubator is not intended to move the immigrant-dominated segment of the garment industry into the 21st century. Instead, Asian and Latino workers will continue to eke out a living under the harshest conditions well into the new millennium.

Sunset Park’s Immigrant Economy

In both the scholarly and popular press, Sunset Park, Brooklyn has recently been touted as an example of immigrant-driven neighborhood revitalization. Designated a poverty area in the 1970s, Sunset Park was described as “an old dying industrial neighborhood.” The influx of Chinese and Dominican immigrants in the early 1980s transformed the demographic, cultural, and economic life of Sunset Park. The primary engine for Sunset Park’s renewal is the ethnic economy comprised of numerous small immigrant-owned retail and manufacturing firms.

While immigrant economic activity is central to the reversal of Sunset Park’s economic decline, this new prosperity is countered by uneven growth characteristic of ethnic enclave economies. Immigrant working and jobless poverty, the expansion of a sweatshop economy, and the casualization of employment relations are also part of the economic life of Sunset Park.

The garment industry continues to be a key mode of economic incorporation for many immigrant groups. Of the 4,500 contracting facilities in New York City, more than two-fifths are owned by immigrants. A key competitive advantage of these firms is access to a vast co-ethnic labor pool. Sunset Park’s garment industry is a critical part of a globalized system of production where the tasks of design, pattern making, cutting, and assembling have been outsourced to many different countries in search of the cheapest labor. Hypercompetition encourages immigrant contractors to outbid each other in production costs and timeline, which then is passed on to their workers in minimal piece rates and 12 hour workdays. In Sunset Park, immigrant women labor under substandard conditions in direct competition with their overseas counterparts in Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

Sunset Park’s Community Board initiated a Garment Industry Task Force in June 1996 to address the growing informal garment industry. Comprised of representatives from UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), Kings County Apparel Association (a group of Chinese garment shop owners), and community groups, the Garment Industry Task Force represented a unique, albeit tenuous, forum for immigrant workers, employers, and the community at large to discuss workplace issues. Upon release of the Brooklyn Borough President’s report, the task force saw an opportunity to secure resources to address Sunset Park’s garment industry. In addition to enhancing business competitiveness, the Garment Industry Task Force advocated that “critical attention will be paid to the cultural, social, and economic aspects of workers’ lives to accommodate the needs of the large number of Asian and Latino employees working within the industry.” Their vision of the garment incubator addressed broader community development needs pertaining to the immigrant working poor.

Incubator = Community Economic Development?

While community participation helped to get an incubator for Sunset Park, the goal of creating a garment center with a comprehensive approach to building a viable neighborhood economy has not been met. The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce has been commissioned to coordinate and manage the development of the incubator, now named Brooklyn Mills. The proposed benefits include the reduction of operating costs and, most importantly, access to technology and technical assistance in export and marketing. The Brooklyn Borough President has allocated more than $400,000 and the New York State legislature has committed an additional $200,000 for the project. Since Brooklyn Mills will be located in a New York State Economic Development Zone, tenants will also benefit from tax savings for purchasing equipment or hiring new employees.

Approximately 27,000 square feet will be renovated to house Brooklyn Mills, scheduled to open in July 1999. The current plan calls for six to ten tenant firms. The tenant selection criteria favor small manufacturing firms that demonstrate the potential to internalize all aspects of garment production from design to production. In a sense, however, Brooklyn Mills is not a true incubator since the tenants will not be startups, but rather firms that are vertically integrated with strong ties to the fashion industry.

Apparel remains the largest manufacturing industry in New York City and is central to the economy of neighborhoods such as Sunset Park. Although there was initially great enthusiasm about the development of a garment center, community leaders are disappointed. In fact, there is a sense of betrayal. Despite the involvement of Sunset Park’s Garment Industry Task Force, Brooklyn Mills, in the words of Chang Xie, Executive Director of the Chinese Planning Council, felt like a “closed door deal.” With the exception of an invitation to the official announcement of Brooklyn Mills, Xie noted that community leaders have “received no news at all” about its planning and development.

In developing strategies to increase the competitiveness of New York’s garment industry in the global marketplace, economic strategies are geared towards firms that are positioned to benefit from production technologies, innovation, and cost efficiencies. The more prevalent form of garment production in New York is, however, based on the cheap labor of risk-taking immigrant business owners and their co-ethnic workers. Since the emphasis is to internalize production in fairly established small manufacturers, Sunset Park’s immigrant contractors and workforce are effectively closed off from establishing linkages to Brooklyn Mills resources. Without sound planning and economic development strategies, small immigrant contractors will continue the “low road” of garment production where marginal profits are based on squeezing labor such that slavery is not a far-fetched metaphor for immigrant work conditions.

The development of Brooklyn Mills is instructive in how the state intervenes in immigrant communities. On the one hand, the state acts as surveillance and policing entity to regulate the conditions in the sweatshop economy. While enforcement of labor standards is necessary, the state has failed to allocate resources to proactively pursue alternative economic development strategies. This is reflected not only in the question of whether conventional economic development tools such as a business incubator is a meaningful form of public investment for Sunset Park, but also in how community involvement in the development process was marginal and token at best. In part, a new challenge is to define community-based asset building in a neighborhood where small business ownership is common but the goals of equity, workforce development, and community wealth remain elusive.

Tarry Hum is Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Studies at Queens College, CUNY and visiting scholar at the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program at New York University.

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