Interview: [email protected]
Unions: State of the Union
Industrial: Fashion Accessories
Legal: Leg Before Picket
Politics: Business Welfare Brats
Health: Cannabis Controversy
Economics: Debt, Deficit, Downturn
History: Politics In The Pubs
Review: Three Bob's Worth
Poetry: Do The Slowly Chokie
The Locker Room
Bus Lanes On Vic Rd
Dirt Cheap Right On Money
There's a tidy home at Bexley, slap-bang in the middle of Sydney's mortgage belt heartland, where little as it seems behind the palms in the front garden.
There is nothing about the two-tone brick bungalow set back from a manicured verge, to suggest passers-by are being monitored from hidden peepholes, much less recorded by a small device above the double-locked garage door.
Security is obviously important to the occupiers but, in this day and age, that's hardly unusual.
It's not until you've actually beaten that security and got inside that you might give a second thought to the late model four wheel drive parked outside in the elements.
There is no room for it in an extended garage that wraps around the house in an L shape.
Why? Because it's not a garage at all, it's a factory set up to deliver low-cost fashion garments, bearing some of the city's ritziest labels, to the country's biggest department stores.
The evidence was all there when three TCFUA reps, acting on a tip-off from the daughter of a seamstress, raided, last month.
They had been told the women rolled up around 7.30am, much later and they would be as unwelcome as any stranger.
So, armed with mobile phones and a video camera, they beat the bars, grills, deadlocks, cameras and closed circuit tv by jumping the queue, between Seamstress Three and Seamstress Four, as another working day began.
As we watch their extraordinary video at the TCFUA's Campsie office, a Chinese woman, interprets.
"Don't open the door, don't open the door. The union is doing an investigation," the boss orders in Cantonese.
Too late, using OH&S investigation powers threatened by John Howard's plan to take over state IR systems, they're in.
And, according to TCFUA secretary, Barry Tubner, it's a health and safety risk alright. Dozens and dozens of cardboard boxes are stacked haphazardly, floor to ceiling.
Tubner calls it a "fire trap" and wonders if neighbours know what goes on behind locked doors.
There are a dozen industrial sewing machines and seven female workers on site. Flowing evening dresses, layered fashion blouses and lycra sports gear, favoured by cyclists, are scattered about. It's highly-skilled work destined for the upper end of the market.
Tubner's offsiders request documentation, a right provided by NSW regulations designed to beat sweatshops.
Four boxes of records reveal nobody is on wages. They suggest half of the women are paid by cheque while the others get cash-in hand.
When investigators match the output with the cheque butts and other documents, they figure the women are earning as little as $1 an hour for some garments but between $3.75 and $5.20 for the majority.
The TCFUA has lodged a backpay claim for $84,006 for the three women paid by cheque.
Tubner says it is a "conservative" figure. It covers only the past 18 months and is based on the boss' contention of eight-hour days rather than evidence from the women that they often worked to, and beyond, midnight.
The owner of the home and operator of Goldbridge Clothing, begs to differ. He says he has no workers, everybody is an independent contractor, responsible for her own super, insurance and holiday arrangements.
The man says he is an "entrepreneur". He gives women the opportunity to bid against one another for his work.
Or, to put it in the words of the company's formal response of February 22: "There is no employees works at the company.
"Our company is acting as an agency, to obtain or tender the clothing processing job from a company, and then re-distribute or re-tender the work to the self-employed person or company, to earn the difference."
This is the standard response when garages full of sewing machines and operators are discovered.
Sweatshop-busting, in Tubner's view, means starting at the end and unpicking the fashion chain. Without NSW regulations that attach liability to the top of the contracting tree and require lists of suppliers, he says, it would be impossible.
The Bexley women are labouring on garments for Cooper Street, Pani, Project One and the latest international "big thing" in sportswear, Jaggad, whose product is made in Australia, under license.
In the gloom of the garage Pani's proud pitch - "When Fashion Returns To Art" - stands out.
Tubner, though, zeroes in on Cooper Street because he's been around the block with designer, Craig Cooper, before and knows he can go straight to the suppliers' list.
This is how the system works ...
Cooper has just one supllier, Elisa, an operation domiciled in the same Surry Hills building as Cooper, himself.
From there, they look up Elisa's return and find it sub-contracts to 10 different companies. The sweatshop busters hop to it and discover nine of them have residential addresses but there, in black and white, is "Goldbridge Clothing Pty Ltd, Forest Rd, Hurstville".
Okay, so they gave the wrong address.
Giving the required 24 hours notice, the union asks Goldbridge to list its sub-sub contractors and gets back the names of another 16 firms. So far, they have checked out 11 addresses and only one stacks up, a two-bedroom unit at Carlton in the city's south.
Tubner says he knows from past investigations at least five of Goldbridge's "suppliers" - Jenny Ngo Fashions, Vu Clothing, Blue Rice Pty Ltd, Luu Henry Clothing and Hung Clothing - don't exist at the addresses provided.
He is intrigued, to put it mildly, by a string of Goldbridge tax invoices that list substantial payments to each of them. Over the last 18 months, well over a quarter of a million dollars.
We check out a Jenny Ngo invoice, dated last November, for a payment of $7412.63, inclusive of $649.33 in GST payments.
This appears to be standard procedure in the under-belly of the clothing industry.
Tubner paints his team as good guys fighting a rearguard action for the Australian understanding of a fair go.
"Not only are these people ripping off workers in an unregistered factory but they are undercutting honest employers and their activities are impacting on every taxpayer in NSW," he says.
"In the deregulated American system they would be considered good businessmen and that appears to be the way John Howard wants them regarded here.
"If he strips away protections in the NSW system, they will have a free hand and everyone else will have to compete on their terms."
It's no wonder Miranda Devine and other disciples of economic rationalism have launched a media campaign to convert Australians to the belief that there are no such things as sweatshops.
Goldbridge Clothing is their deregulated economy in action, with a crack at the integrity of the tax system thrown in good for measure.
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