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Employer Is for Open U.S. Door
Los Angeles Times
Michael Hiltzik
April 20, 2006

What with immigration being a hot topic these days, almost every constituency has weighed in on the subject of our porous borders. We've heard from workers; politicians left, right and center; the clergy; economists; labor organizers; newscasters and, yes, newspaper columnists. For many of them the question is the same: What should be done about these strangers in our midst?

Now let's hear from an employer of immigrants.

"My experience is that they're making a great contribution to the economy. They're very interested in integrating themselves. They're not trying to rip off anybody. No one's trying to get out of paying any taxes. Everybody's ready to do the right thing. The night of Sept. 11, in the neighborhoods in which I work and in which I drove home and throughout the Latino neighborhoods where workers work, there were people who didn't speak very good English waving American flags on Sunset [Boulevard]. Doesn't matter what the documents say, they're American workers. They're a fundamental part of our city."

The speaker is Dov Charney, 37, the founder and senior partner of American Apparel Inc., a manufacturer of youth-oriented garb with 125 retail stores, including 76 in the United States, and more than $200 million in annual sales. American's downtown factory is the largest single garment plant in the nation, employing 3,800 workers, of whom 90% are Latino.

Charney's company has a well-deserved reputation as a progressive employer. The average pay at the plant is $12 an hour, about twice the minimum wage. Employees working 32 hours can purchase company-subsidized health insurance for themselves for $8 a week, or about 16% of the total cost; family coverage is unsubsidized, but the company helps workers enroll their dependents in public healthcare programs. Charney provides on-site English lessons for workers and other workplace perks. He says he's planning to hire buses to transport 2,500 workers to downtown rallies on behalf of labor and sound immigration policies on May 1.

It's worth noting that not everybody accepts Charney's image as an unalloyed friend to immigrants. Among them is Mary Nelson, a former sales representative who alleges in a lawsuit that the workplace at American was rife with profanity and suggestiveness that rose to the level of sexual harassment. Her lawyer, Keith A. Fink, says many of the immigrant workers were as appalled as his client, but were powerless to complain or sue. American is fighting the case.

Of two other sexual harassment lawsuits filed last year by female workers at the plant and a retail location, one was withdrawn by the plaintiff and a second was settled confidentially. For his part, Charney openly flaunts his reputation as a young, sexually liberated male and likes to portray his company as hip and edgy, a tone he has argued extends naturally to the premises.

Charney went to prep school in Connecticut and attended Tufts University. After dropping out he started his business in South Carolina, moving it to L.A. in 1987. He's an immigrant himself (from Canada), and like our immigrant governor he's not shy about exploiting that fact to validate his opinion on immigration. But it's safe to say that his ideal immigration policy wouldn't resemble Gov. Schwarzenegger's one bit.

"My vision would be a very liberal immigration policy," he told me this week. "I think we have to have a wholesale amnesty, one shot. I don't believe in any restrictions on exit or entry to the United States. 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall,' " he says, rather mischievously quoting Ronald Reagan's famous evocation of the right of free movement across national borders. "Give people the opportunity to work.

"I understand there are security issues, but there are other ways to deal with that," he adds. "I can tell you, if a cleaning lady can get over the border, then Al Qaeda will have no problem whatsoever. But I don't think the border is sealable, and I don't think it's the right direction to take."

Charney won't say (if he knows) how many of his employees are illegal immigrants.

"Our rule is if you present the proper ID and it appears to be proper, we hire the worker," he says. "Everybody's documented here. If you ask me to speculate, I think over 50% of the workers in my industry are falsely documented."

Is that troubling? Not to Charney. He says he agrees that "some order" needs to be brought to the immigration process, but "immigration has to be understood as a good thing."

"People fear the newcomers," he says. "People want to see immigrants in their own image, and when they don't they get scared. I just see positive: people making a contribution to society. I have Chinese immigrants working here, Canadian immigrants, I have Mexican immigrants, Guatemalan, Korean, Japanese. One of the secrets to American Apparel is that very few of us are American-born. But that's what makes us an American company. Diversity is strength."

His feeling is that politics and emotion are what prevent Americans from confronting the reality of immigration and crafting the right policy.

"I realize nobody's able to speak candidly on these issues," he says. That applies directly to his own industry, which unlike the agricultural sector has never stood on the political front lines to say that it depends for labor on undocumented workers. "No one really wants to come forth and be honest."

Charney has some theories about the apparel industry's shyness. One is that its workforce is more visible to the community than are farmworkers, so broadcasting their lack of documentation makes Americans more sensitive about their presence. "Apparel is in your city. It's close to home. Agriculture is in the fields."

He also suggests that apparel companies believe it would be a marketing faux pas to remind buyers that their stylish clothing is manufactured by a distinctly declasse labor force not at all like them. "Apparel is supposed to be sexy and fun. Clothing is linked to the leisure culture, and food is linked to survival."

But that shouldn't blind us to the truth, he says. "You might as well recognize that people move around. To make sense of this and take advantage of it in a positive manner is better than to have it operate in a kind of underground manner.

"The controversy right now is important, it's healthy. I think working people who are living in the shadows of our community will have their day."
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