This article was originally published in Fashionista October 13, 2020. We debated whether or not to include it in Behind the Seams as it does not paint the apparel industry in good light. We ultimately decided to share this article because it discusses a real and significant problem plaguing the industry both in the United States and around the world. And, as the article says, this problem needs a multilateral solution that would involve all major actors in the supply chain, from factories to brands, to address the problem from the root. When we talk about workforce issues at the supplier level, it is often with a focus on the need to find skilled workers. We should also be discussing the treatment of those workers across the supply chain.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the infamous El Monte Sweatshop Case, in which 72 people from the south of Thailand were brought to El Monte, California and imprisoned in a makeshift garment factory. Federal agents, local police and state officials raided the apartment, which was fenced with razor wire and watched by armed guards at all hours. The horrifying conditions they found went on to inform a series of local and federal anti-trafficking and garment industry laws.
The case marked a key moment in the United States' history of labor standards, and challenged the idea that sweatshops were a distant practice never found on U.S. shores. Today, sweatshops persist in Los Angeles, where cut-and-sew garment labor represents the second biggest industry in the city, employing over 45,000 people.
With an average hourly rate of $6, Los Angeles' fashion district is predicated on a vulnerable workforce of largely undocumented immigrants. Workers of this underground economy are often subjected to wage theft, intimidation and poor health and safety conditions.
On the frontlines of fighting against these injustices is the Garment Worker Center (GWC), a workers' rights group founded in 2001 to organize low-wage garment workers in Los Angeles in the fight for social and economic justice. The GWC was born directly from the El Monte case: After the El Monte workers won their campaign, the coalition established the GWC. Since its inception, the organization has taken a bottom-up approach, actively centering workers as key leadership, making it a movement largely led by women of color.
What Fuels Exploitation?
Unfortunately, ongoing exploitation means that the GWC is as relevant as ever. A Department of Labor investigation in 2016 found that contractors received only 73% of what they need to be able to pay workers minimum wage. The result is that retailers have their garments made cheaply, increasing their profits, while workers receive below minimum wage. According to their regular legal clinics for workers, the GWC has also identified a high frequency of wage theft in factories producing clothes for some of the biggest players in fast fashion, including Forever 21 and Fashion Nova.
These companies rely on the fast turnaround time possible with localized production, which allows them to get clothes made in less than two weeks.
With a system predicated on speed and scale, garment workers are routinely expected to work around the clock. One of the biggest propellers of this urgent production cycle? The piece rate.
Piece rates allow L.A. factories to dodge giving proper wages by compensating workers per each piece they produce, rather than the hours that they work.
The piece rate system once served as a way to incentivize workers to reach higher production quotas. According to the GWC's Director, Marissa Nuncio, garment workers who have been in the industry for multiple decades say the piece rate hasn't increased in the last 30 years. Many workers are paid as low as 2 to 3 cents per piece.
With the average garment worker now making $6 an hour, the current $12 minimum wage is far from met. The eventual $15 minimum wage, which will be reached in 2022, will still be far too little for workers to navigate L.A.'s increasing cost of living.
In order to maintain a docile workforce, documentation status is routinely weaponized within L.A.'s garment industry, which is largely comprised of illegal or indeterminate-status immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Fear of retaliation from employers, being fired or deportation are all reasons workers avoid speaking up.
"Employers often tell them that the labor commission is sharing information with ICE. The employers will say they saw their workers at the labor commission, or that the deputy sent them information, which are lies — if they did, it would be a huge violation," says Mar Martinez in a phone interview. Martinez is a former organizer at the Garment Worker Center whose mother was a garment worker for brands like Forever 21.
It's something that Yeni Dewi, a victim of labor trafficking from Indonesia who came to work in L.A.'s garment industry, knows well.