The following letter was sent to friends and supporters of Comptroller candidate John Liu in response to the recent Daily News article which, in effect, accuses Liu of lying about his past experience working as a young person in a Chinatown sweatshop.
As one Chinatown resident explains "Historically many U.S. immigrants toiled at sweatshops or in sweatshop like conditions in order to keep a roof overhead and food on the table -- unfortunately it was ingrained in many to keep quiet about the long hours, low pay, lack of overtime or risk getting their bosses into trouble or themselves fired. Sadly such choices continue to be faced by many immigrants today."
We all know that sweatshops exist – even in our modern ethical society
– but no one talks openly about it, especially not people who have
worked in factories. And many people, including journalists, simply
do not understand how these illegal industries operate.
Today's Daily news article (text in-full at end of message), "City
controller hopeful John Liu touts youth in sweatshop - only family
says it never happened", is a case-in-point.
What began as a profile suddenly turned into a misleading piece of
'gotcha' journalism. A reporter asked for an interview with my
parents to talk about my childhood, and we gave her unfettered access.
My mom was very reluctant and embarrassed to talk about her
experience working in the garment industry.
After the interview, the reporter asked me for a paystub to prove I
actually worked in the factory. We attempted to explain to the
journalist how sweatshops actually work. Unfortunately, we were
unable to dislodge her preconceived ideas about how illegal practices
in the garment industry work.
Not all sweatshops look like a scene from 'Norma Rae' or other
Hollywood movies, with people toiling in neat rows in a factory
setting. These factories do exist, but in addition, some sweatshops
use overseas labor involving children as young as 6 years old. Others
– including the one my mother worked in – combined factory hours with
home-based piece work to maximize the exploitation and squeeze the
most out of workers: even after leaving the factory, the work never
Equally important for sweatshop owners are the weapons of intimidation
and shame, which keep parents from admitting they have involved their
own children in unlawful work situations.
For my parents and so many Asian parents, having worked in a sweatshop
is a shameful past and people choose to bury those memories. It’s
time we brought them out in the open and let people tell their stories
without being subjected to cynical attacks.
35 years ago, I worked with my mom – inside a sweatshop and at home.
For me, it’s not a shameful past. I make no apology for the work
ethic I gained from toiling away many hours in a factory, and I remain
as committed as ever to exposing and ending the sweatshop system.
I am running for Comptroller based on my record of accomplishments and
my fiscal expertise and my vision for what the Office can do. I am
also running to expand opportunity for the millions of New Yorkers who
don't have a job as well as those who work in sweatshops in the
retail, restaurant, laundry and many, many other industries.
John C. Liu
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "City controller hopeful John Liu touts youth in
sweatshop - only family says it never happened" - 8/23/09
In powerful new TV ads, emotional music plays over pictures of city
controller candidate John Liu as a little boy.
"He came here at 5, and by seven had to work in a sweatshop to make
ends meet," a narrator drones over images of women hunched over
machines in a crowded factory.
"Working in finance taught Liu how to account for every penny, but
working in that sweatshop as a kid taught him why we need to."
There's only one problem with the compelling story of his immigrant
childhood toiling beside his mother in a sweatshop — his parents and
two of his mother's friends say it never happened.
She worked at home.
"I never go to the factory," Liu's mother, Jamy Liu, 69, told the
Daily News of her 10 years in the garment industry.
"I just go there and pick up some material and bring home because I
had to take care of my kids," she said in an interview arranged by her
As a young boy, Liu helped his mother work on the knitting machine —
first in the living room of the family's Flushing, Queens, apartment,
then in the garage of their larger Bayside home, his parents said.
He was paid 25 cents for every ball he spun on a yarn-spinning tool,
but Liu's father, Joseph Liu, 73, described that money as allowance.
"Lily Fashion pay her, and she give the kids allowance to encourage
them," Joseph Liu said of the company that employed his wife while he
worked his way up in a bank and studied at night for his MBA.
Liu, 42, rarely, if ever, mentioned his sweatshop childhood during his
three campaigns for City Council or after he became the Council's
The News found no references to his sweatshop work in articles about
him before this year.
But Liu's sweatshop past has been the centerpiece of his campaign this
year and is cited extensively by labor leaders and others who've
Asked to list his employment history on a recent questionnaire from
The News, he said he worked as a "knitting-thread manager" in Queens
garment factories from 1974 to 1978.
"I learned first-hand why they call that place a sweatshop," Liu said
a recent campaign event.
When The News confronted Liu about the discrepancy, he insisted his
memory is accurate and made an impromptu offer to take a reporter to
Queens in search of proof.
Forty minutes later, Liu's mother met his car on Main St. in Flushing,
where she told her son she had mostly worked at home.
"Sometime work there couple hours," she said of the factories where
she said she did "freelance" work.
"Every style, I had to learn there [in the factory]. Then I go home
because I had to take care of kids."
Liu then took his mom and a reporter to meet Kwei Ching Liao, who
owned a garment factory in Flushing that was the first to employ Jamy
Liu when she arrived with her young family from Taiwan.
But Liao told the same story. She worked "in home," Liao said. "Take
home the piece work."
John Liu became visibly frustrated, frowning and resting his forehead
in his hand.
"I'm just trying to prove that 10 years of my life were not my
imagination," he said.
Liu called the next day to say he'd spoken with his parents about "how
our memories could be so different" and said he thought they may have
been ashamed of the sweatshop and hadn't told the whole truth.
"They were worried about how it would look for me that I worked in a
sweatshop ... They were not being completely forthright," he said.
A day later, his campaign gave a reporter two additional names of
women who worked with his mother, but one reached by The News told the
"She cannot stay [in the factory] because she has the children," said
Nancy Kuo, 68, of Flushing, who worked with Jamy Liu at a factory in
Long Island City.
Jamy Liu would bring her three sons with her to the factory when she
came to collect her piece work, Kuo said, and John Liu, the oldest,
would ask to use the machines.
"Just for fun," she said. "He thought was toy. He want to try."
Only Jui Zheng, 74, of Flushing, said she saw Jamy Liu work on a
regular basis in the Long Island City factory, though she was sketchy
on when or how long.
Through a Chinese interpreter, she recalled Jamy Liu worked at home
for a while, then in the factory, where she would sometimes bring her
boys. She said the owner occasionally gave children work to do and
believes she saw John Liu help out.
Liu maintains his memories are accurate, but his version of events has shifted.
He now says his mom worked at home during the schoolyear so she'd be
available to her kids after school — but brought them to the sweatshop
with her in the summer.
It was a different story than he told The News in an interview last
month. "Part of the year when school was open, we were latch-key
kids," Liu said last month. "We went home by ourselves and stayed
until 9 o'clock when my mom came home."
Still, he says, he remembers everything precisely.
"I was proud of the fact at the time that while other kids were
playing around, wasting time," he said, "I actually had a job, making
money, getting paid."