KING 5 traces suburban sweatshop goods to reputable businesses

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on November 18, 2010 at 6:36 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 18 at 7:10 PM

BURIEN, Wash. -- They're reputable companies that boast American-made products and good paying jobs. But the KING 5 Investigators have tracked some of their goods back to a suburban sweatshop.

The sewing shop is located in a tidy Burien home. Neighbors have no idea that inside the house’s large garage are nearly twenty sewing machines and workers stitching together cloth products.  

Owner's Hao and Tu Nguyen told KING 5 they’ve run "Haos Sewing" from their garage for the last ten years. They say they pay their workers eight to ten dollars an hour.  That's around Washington's minimum wage of $8.55 per hour.

However, one former employee says she was paid much less for long, seven-day work weeks.

"I tried to do the math and they paid me only $2.66 per hour," says Huong Duong, who worked at Haos Sewing until last month. “Anything I do wrong they would yell at me, curse at me, treat me like an animal."

She describes it as a "sweatshop."

While Haos Sewing may be an underground business,  we found the products they make are going mainstream.

Tactical Tailor in Lakewood supplies military and police with rugged outdoor gear. Its slogan is "Built for patriots -- by patriots." The company claims to provide good-paying jobs, especially for military veterans. It has a retail store just outside Joint Base Lewis-McChord that serves U.S. military personnel.

While outfitting the men and woman who embody American freedom, Tactical Tailor has been doing business with a company that may be thumbing its nose at the American way.

The KING 5 Investigators watched Hao Nguyen drive a load of his products to Tactical Tailor's Lakewood warehouse for delivery.

A company spokesman refused to appear on camera, but said Tactical Tailor had no knowledge of any sub-contractors violating wage and hour laws.

At Haos Sewing, we saw workers stitching labels for "Rite in the Rain," another Pierce County company that advertises "Made in America" goods for military, police and contractors.

We found boxes full of Rite in the Rain book covers and pouches in the shop and told the Haos that KING 5 was informed some workers were paid only 50-cents for each one they produced. The Haos laughed and said, “No, no, no…” when asked if that was true.

But KING 5 found one worker who is making only pennies per item.

In addition to the women it employs in its Burien shop Haos Sewing also pays people to sew in their own homes. Sokaom Roeun says Haos Sewing pays her 80 cents per book cover. She stitches about two per hour, the equivalent of a $1.60 per hour wage.

The cloth book covers sell for $15.95 each on Rite in the Rain's website.

Rite in the Rain started small in Tacoma more than 50 years ago, but is now world renowned for its versatile outdoor writing products. Book covers and other items made in Hao Nguyen’s garage are being shipped all over the world.

Rite in the Rain refused an on-camera interview request from the KING 5 Investigators. Company owner Todd Silver also declined to identify the contractor who supplies their cloth products, but insisted it was not Haos Sewing.


After KING 5’s initial expose’ on Haos Sewing, Silver sent the television station an email explaining that his sewing products were supplied by Tactical Tailor. Silver says his company was “surprised” to learn the products weren’t produced in Tactical Tailor’s Lakewood warehouse and that it “breaks my heart” that they are coming from a place like Haos Sewing.

Huong Duong says she wasn’t working at Hao’s willingly. She says she was forced to by her abusive husband. Last month, she left him and the job. She now wants others to know what’s going on there.

“The reason I'm doing this (interview) is so that Mr. Hao and his wife can't do this to any other immigrants that come to America," says Duong.

Since the KING 5 Investigators started raising questions about Haos Sewing, state and City of Burien officials have launched separate investigations into potential workplace, zoning and licensing violations.

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