WRC Training for California State Labor Inspectors

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova and Ben Hensler
Date:December 12, 2012
Re:WRC Training for California State Labor Inspectors

We are pleased to update you on the completion of a project the WRC conducted this past summer in collaboration with California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), the agency responsible for enforcing the wage-and-hour laws of our nation’s most populous state. This program, which was then still in preparation, was briefly discussed at our May 2012 University Caucus Meeting. 

Since then, the WRC, acting at the request of California Labor Commissioner Julie Su and as a sub-grantee of the University of California – Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, has conducted a comprehensive training program for California’s state wage-and-hour inspectors on worker interview techniques. These inspectors have been tasked with monitoring wage-and-hour compliance across a state whose $1.9 trillion economy would make it, if California were a separate country, the eighth largest in the world.

The program was designed to share with the DLSE’s inspectors tools and best practices for effective worker interviews that the WRC has developed through its work on behalf of universities investigating sweatshop conditions in apparel factories around the world. The Labor Commissioner requested that the WRC provide this training in the recognition that the WRC’s interview techniques and strategies have direct applicability to the investigation of wage-and-hour violations in California, particularly those committed against low-wage and otherwise vulnerable workers, where overcoming fear of employer intimidation and retaliation and uncovering violations which are not apparent in employer records are necessities.

The training was carried out this May over the course of five daylong programs held in Sacramento, Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego. All departments of the agency participated – a total of more than 130 persons – including enforcement staff from the DLSE’s Bureau of Field Enforcement, Public Works Unit, and Retaliation Unit. The program was conducted by trainers from the WRC and the Los Angeles Wage Justice Center, a nonprofit organization with which the WRC recently partnered in a factory monitoring project for the Los Angeles City Attorney.

State Labor Commissioner Su worked closely with the WRC in designing the curriculum and personally participated in many of the trainings. At the Labor Commissioner’s request, the WRC subsequently developed a manual for DLSE to serve as a resource in the future for DLSE staff, including materials used in the training, interview tips and best practices, sample interview questions, and methods to gain trust of worker interviewees. This manual can be viewed here.

The training program focused on two key methodologies employed by the WRC in its labor rights investigations:

  • Connecting with and gaining the confidence of low-wage workers through outreach to persons and organizations that may already know these workers and have their trust – community groups, labor organizations, clergypersons, private attorneys, etc.
  • Conducting in-depth confidential worker interviews away from the worksite in locations where employees feel safe to discuss their working conditions openly and honestly.

These two practices distinguish the WRC’s approach to labor rights investigation from those of nearly all other private factory auditing companies and monitoring organizations, which rely primarily on interviews with workers that are conducted on the employer’s premises, where, as is well-recognized, interviewees are routinely subject to “coaching” and intimidation. The approach the WRC has developed is widely recognized to obtain more accurate information regarding labor rights violations, including wage-and-hour problems, than factory monitoring models that rely exclusively on onsite interviews and review of employer records — which have been criticized for allowing employers to conceal significant violations of workers’ rights.

Conducting effective offsite interviews, however, requires that investigators establish the trust and confidence of factory workers and local labor rights advocates, something that is often difficult to obtain when auditors are paid by a factory’s own client brands, or even the factory owners, themselves. As you know, the WRC is virtually unique among factory monitoring organizations in not accepting any funds from apparel companies – whether factory owners, or the brands or retailers who are their clients.

Labor rights advocates have long recognized that wide scale violation of wage-and-hour laws is not confined to developing countries. A 2010 UCLA survey of low-wage workers in Los Angeles, our country’s largest center of apparel manufacturing, found that these employees lose more than $26.2 million per week as a result of labor law violations. Under Commissioner Su’s leadership, California’s labor standards enforcement program is undergoing a major transformation to more effectively take on this enormous problem.

The WRC is pleased to have been able to contribute to this critical work. Helping to enhance the DLSE’s enforcement of California’s wage-and-hour laws benefits compliance with university codes of conduct because, although most collegiate apparel manufacturing occurs overseas, university licensees continue to disclose significant numbers of firms in the US and, in particular, Southern California, as suppliers. 
The DLSE training program is the most recent of several collaborations with government entities in California. As you may know, the WRC is also contracted to serve as the official monitor for the City of Los Angeles and the City and County of San Francisco of factories supplying vendors covered by those cities’ Sweat-Free Procurement Ordinances. The WRC has also acted as a court-appointed monitor for the California Superior Court regarding compliance with a stipulated judgment reached by the Los Angeles City Attorney with a local garment manufacturer concerning extensive wage-and-hour and health and safety violations.

The DLSE training program, based on work the WRC has performed for more than a decade on behalf of university affiliates, is another instance of the positive ripple effects of universities’ leadership in addressing the sweatshop problem. We look forward to exploring further ways through which the lessons learned through university code of conduct enforcement can contribute to broader progress in labor rights protection. 

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW, 5th Floor 
Washington DC 20005 
ph  202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292 
[email protected]