California’s Garment Workers Reveal: Sweatshops Aren’t Just a Problem Overseas

Garment industry abuses don’t just happen in faraway lands—workers in Los Angeles face rough conditions too.

(Photo: Charles Davis)

Sep 10, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Charles Davis is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, Salon, and Vice.

It was nearly 100 degrees outside the theater in Pasadena, California, where reporters gathered Wednesday afternoon to hear what it’s really like to work in the local garment industry.

“We feel the heat right now,” said Maria, a middle-aged seamstress sporting a pink cast on her thumb. At least those who had come to listen had the benefit of a breeze.

“Now imagine what that heat might feel like with no ventilation,” said Maria, who did not give her last name for fear of retaliation. She does not have to imagine what it’s like working in a factory that’s 15 degrees hotter than the already-scorching outdoors—she’s one of the more than 43,000 people employed by the garment industry in Los Angeles, making clothes for some of the world’s most fashionable brands. Rough conditions—working 10 or more hours a day at just about half the legal minimum wage in a baking-hot room—are often just part of the job. Describing it was enough to bring Maria to tears.

Over the summer, organizers with the Garment Worker Center, a labor advocacy group based in Los Angeles, interviewed 175 workers in the local textile and garment industry. What they found is evidence that labor violations are rampant in America’s sweatshops. Half of workers said the factories they work in have poor ventilation, as detailed in a report the group released this week. About one in three workers said they didn’t have access to clean drinking water, and the same number said they were denied breaks.

Nearly two-thirds said they work overtime every day but are not paid for it, and what they are paid isn’t much: on average, $5 an hour.

The minimum wage in California is $9.

One might dismiss the findings as those of an advocacy group with a stated mission to organize low-wage garment workers in Los Angeles. However, the findings follow a 2010 study from UCLA that found low-wage workers in L.A. are victims of $26.2 million in wage theft every week.

To boot, at Wednesday’s press conference outside the Pasadena Playhouse, a U.S. Department of Labor official told TakePart that the government’s own research backs up claims of rampant law-breaking.

“That’s pretty much what our investigations have shown: that workers make around $5 an hour on piece rate,” said Richard Longo of the department’s wage and hours division, referring to the industry practice of paying workers by each garment completed instead of a set hourly wage. A shirt that retails for $30 only earns workers who made it $1.50, he said.

Longo and the advocates’ latest report didn’t name names of abusive retailers, but past actions taken by labor officials have implicated some major brands. In 2012, for example, the Department of Labor said “sweatshop-like” conditions were found at factories across L.A. that made clothes for mall-friendly retailers all over the country, such as Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, and Wet Seal.

“The retailers are paying the manufacturers somewhere between one-half and one-third” what it would take for that manufacturer to pay California’s minimum wage, said Longo. Violations of labor law are inevitable, though the retailers’ outsourcing of those violations allows for what, under the law if not to the objective observer, constitutes plausible deniability. We didn’t know, they can say, however much that ignorance might be willful.

“What we consistently hear as we talk to people within the supply chain is that the retailers basically decide…the price point and then they work down from there,” Longo said. “Who gets left behind? The workers. Everybody above makes their money.”

And how: Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters, one of the retailers cited in the 2012 federal labor complaint, netted more than $66 million in profits last quarter alone.

“It’s very rare to see [garment makers] paid for all their hours of work,” Longo said. “There’s no unemployment insurance, no workers’ compensation, no overtime, and no social security benefits.”

Maria knows that all too well. The pink cast on her thumb came from an injury she got a month ago on the job. She hasn’t been able to work since, but the bills don’t stop coming just because the checks do—and the cost of treating her workplace injury is all on her.

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Eighty percent of the workers who were surveyed said they never received any health or safety training before entering a factory. Zacil Pech, an organizer with the Garment Worker Center who helped conduct the group’s survey, said she heard from women who, having cut themselves while sewing, “dip their finger in machine oil to get the bleeding to stop.” She remembers one woman showing how each of her fingers were terribly bruised. Heat-related illnesses were common.

“These bosses don’t even have the decency to put in any air conditioning,” Pech said. “The ones that are lucky get fans…. It really took us back.”

It wouldn’t take much to dramatically improve the conditions these workers face, Pech said. What her organization is asking for is essentially the bare minimum that is currently law: $9 an hour, for instance, and regular breaks. Some employers claim even that is too much, however, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that some factory owners, spurred by the threat of increased wages, “are flirting with the idea of relocating to El Paso,” attracted by its minimal protections for labor.

As it stands in L.A., paying what even the Department of Labor acknowledges are sub-legal wages is not likely to have any real consequences for the employer who does it. Stealing may be against the law, but taking from the poor is treated very differently than taking from the rich. A 2013 study from the UCLA Labor Center found that even when California employees filed complaints against their thieving employers, stuck with the year-long process, and ultimately won a judgment saying they deserved pay, 83 percent of the time they never saw a penny. Accordingly, researchers at UCLA found that eight out of 10 workers in Los Angeles experience some form of wage theft, from unpaid overtime to a sub-legal hourly rate. For most laborers, complaining only brings the risk of retaliation: 43 percent of those who did speak up were either fired, had their hours cut, or were threatened with deportation. The Labor Center has found that no group is violated as much as undocumented Latinas.

And yet, despite report after report repeating the same facts year after year, “nothing has changed,” said Christina Vasquez of Workers United, a North American union for textile workers. In fact, she said, “I think things have gotten worse,” because employers have learned that they can abuse their employees with impunity. Vasquez would like to see big clothing retailers held liable for the labor practices of their contractors, which means regulators need resources to go after unscrupulous firms for laws that are already on the books.

Before reform, though, there must come awareness—consciousness—of where our clothes come from and the blood and tears that go into making them. Pop culture, perhaps, can help.

While the press conference took place out in the heat, inside the significantly cooler Pasadena Playhouse, actors were preparing to stage a production of Real Women Have Curves, a story about Latinas in East L.A. employed in area sweatshops. Those interviewed by the Garment Worker Center may not always get their wages, but they were given free tickets and, for a few hours at least, got to sit in some air conditioning.