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.
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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.
"I'm really mad with the system — who made piece rate legal? In my last company, I asked people what they're going to do. I say, 'let's go fight.' But they say 'We don't have documentation, don't give me dreams like that,'" Dewi says in a phone interview.
GWC director Nuncio has worked with the center since its earliest campaigns against the likes of Forever 21 in the early 2000s, up until its most recent brand accountability campaign against Ross Stores, also known as Ross Dress for Less.
According to Nuncio, the key issues of the industry remain the same. In addition to the stagnant piece rate, the price that retailers are paying manufacturers have also remained stagnant, with most retailers paying only a percentage of the price needed for manufacturers to provide fair wages to workers.
Pay Up, Ross
Since 2016, the Garment Workers Center has run a "Pay Up, Ross" campaign, after a Department of Labor investigation found 13 factories that produced for YN Apparel, a primary supplier for Ross Stores, had flagrant labor violations — including wages as low as $4 to $5 an hour for 50 to 60 hours of work per week.
Four members of the Garment Worker Center worked in these factories, and went on to bring forward wage claims to the California Labor Commission. They won their case and the court ordered that they be paid over $800,000 in back-owed wages.
But their owed wages still weren't paid. The factories shut down entirely, using a common tactic known as "cutting and running," where factories halt operations to avoid accountability, and often reopen under different names.
So garment workers asked Ross Stores to take direct responsibility for the owed wages in its supply chain. Juliana Bautista and a woman we'll call Lucia Garcia, who has requested anonymity, were two of those workers.
"I worked for Sam's Fashion for Ross for four years. During those four years, I worked from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. with no breaks and the pay was very little. I knew that Ross was paying these contracts.... We worked Saturday and Sunday to meet the deadlines because the order had to be turned in for Monday. Ross would only give us three to four days. If we didn't meet the deadlines, Ross would pay less for the contract," says Garcia in a phone interview.
Bautista, in a phone interview, adds, "What motivated me to fight Ross was [that] I was angry because of the way I got treated. When I worked, the factory would throw bundles of clothing at us. And because I was being paid cash, nothing added up to the hours I actually worked. Just like Lucia, I didn't have many breaks, 30 minutes [at] most."
Ross Stores did what most brands that are found to have wage theft do: It avoided accountability by blaming the factories, which had since cut and run.
"Ross Stores, the company that made $15 billion in 2019, doesn't care about workers," says Bautista. "When we went to protest at the shareholder meeting, they called the cops on us. But we need to keep fighting. How is it that Ross got away [with] stepping on workers' rights?.... Barbara, the CEO of Ross, thinks that it's fine for her to get away from wage theft, and we need more worker power."
The Garment Worker Restitution Fund
In August of 2019, after months of advocacy in Sacramento, garment workers successfully secured the approval for $16.3 million dollars in California's 2019-2020 budget to ensure that garment workers whose wages were stolen were paid their due. If an employee could not collect from the employer because they had declared bankruptcy or closed their doors, the fund would pay the wages owed to workers like Garcia and Bautista.
Although incredibly important, the restitution fund did not address the root of the problem: It offloaded the responsibility onto the state, rather than building a culture of accountability within the supply chain.
"The State Restitution Fund is important in that it acknowledges that garment workers are a vulnerable workforce, but it was created to be a last resort for workers when nobody else pays up," says Nuncio.
She cites a report released by the UCLA Labor Center which found that low-wage workers in L.A. lost $26.2 million in wage theft violations every week, the highest of any other major city in the country — and the garment industry made up the largest sector of this study.
"What did not work out with the fund is that it's not all been paid. To date, it's approximately $13 million of the $16.3 million that's been paid," she adds. "I think that has a lot to do with inefficient bureaucracy within the state. We can't help but assume it also has to do with the failure to prioritize garment workers — at least that's how workers feel."
After months of waiting, Garcia recently received her money from the Restitution Fund, which she said helped her greatly when she became diagnosed with Covid-19.
Bautista has yet to receive her funds, over one year after the approval of the fund.
Garcia is among many L.A. garment workers who have been severely impacted by Covid-19. In March, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti implemented LA Protects in order to fast-track mask production by partnering with local factories to produce protective gear.
L.A.'s garment workers have become essential workers, and key players in creating PPE — yet many garment workers report not receiving masks themselves.
What's more is that many of the sweatshop conditions that plague the L.A. garment industry — from lack of ventilation and sanitation — have further put garment workers at risk. Dov Charney-owned Los Angeles Apparel, which has been noted as one of L.A.'s more ethical manufacturing facilities due to its living wages, has recently come under fire by the city of LA after over 380 workers were infected with Covid-19, and four workers died.
"Covid has changed me in so many ways. I wasn't really aware of how difficult it would be," says Francisco Tzul, who was diagnosed after working at Los Angeles Apparel, in a phone interview. "Social distance was not really taking place in their factories. It was really difficult for me to get help. After hospitalization, my roommates kicked me out of my home. I got some money to get a small hotel in Skid Row. Everywhere else it was so expensive."
Tzul was supported with assistance of the GWC's Covid-19 Relief Fund, which has been aiding multiple workers who have been struggling financially or diagnosed with Covid. After reaching a point of recovery, he was stuck between the need to work and fear of the virus.
"When I was able to work again, it was really scary. I don't have a car and had to use public transportation," Tzul explains. "I was really nervous, because buses are not safe."
According to Tzul, most factories aren't safe either — something he saw firsthand when he visited several sites to find a job.
"It is important that we organize now because we have to detain the spread of the virus," he adds. "Thousands of garment workers are afraid to speak up. Many of them are not legal and that is challenging for us."
The existing cracks in L.A.'s garment industry, exacerbated by Covid, have furthered the need for a multilateral solution that would involve all major actors in the supply chain, from factories to brands, and address the problem from the root.
That's exactly what the Garment Worker Protection Act would do.
The Garment Worker Protection Act
In February 2020, the Garment Worker Protection Bill was introduced into the California Senate. The bill would update the Garment Worker Protection Act, which was passed 20 years ago as a result of the El Monte sweatshop case and which created legislation that made manufacturers accountable for wage violations by contractors.
"The original goal of the bill was that a worker can file a claim against an employer, and can hold every key intermediary accountable," says Nuncio. "But what has happened is that the layers of subcontracting have taken that ability away — that's why we want to close the gap."
The proposed legislation would protect garment workers by eliminating the piece rate system, set the compensation base to the hourly minimum wage and make manufacturers and retailers guarantors to ensure that garment workers receive their wages. This would represent a key step to addressing the gaps in enforcement, as the Labor Commissioner's Bureau of Field Enforcement would be able to investigate and cite these guarantors.
After clearing the Senate, the bill dragged through the Assembly, and ultimately did not make it to the floor on the final night of the legislative session, which was ironically shortened by the pandemic.
"Most of the members supported this bill in both the senate and in the house. To not have that expressed in a vote is really terrible... The system failed the workers. The workers didn't fail," says Senator Maria Elena Durazo, who introduced the bill into the Senate, in a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the Garment Worker Center.
But for organizing workers, the death of the bill was not the end of the campaign as much as the beginning of the next chapter.
"Somebody among house leaders did not prioritize the garment worker bill. But our members are just amazing," Nuncio told Fashionista a week after the bill failed to be voted on. "They immediately began to talk about how they're going to outreach to more workers, how they're going to outreach to more supportive businesses within the garment industry, how they're going to do more legislative visits... They literally didn't skip a beat and went right into campaign year two planning. It was just beautiful."
This means the continuation of a two-year legislative fight, one that could ultimately provide a key solution grounded in multilateral accountability.
Los Angeles: a sustainable fashion capital?
As legacy retailers go bankrupt, supply chains rupture and millions of garment workers are left destitute worldwide, a reimagining of the fashion industry has become necessary. From this vantage point, the Garment Worker Protection Act perhaps represents not a risk to California businesses' bottom lines, but a timely shift in how all businesses should operate.
According to Kristine Kim, a value chain strategist who focuses on the global fashion industry, setting a minimum wage is already common practice. In fact, it is enshrined in international labor law. As she pointed out in a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the GWC, labor laws in places like Cambodia or Bangladesh can surpass those in places like California — despite its reputation as a progressive state — by virtue of having a minimum wage, a byproduct of the governance of the United Nations.
"In California, we just have our government," she said. "So we really need to align our elected officials to pass laws that protect us. In one sense, California is very behind, but on the other hand, the [Garment Worker Protection Act] seeks to do something very unprecedented both nationally and internationally, which is to draw a line of accountability all the way up to the brands."
Should the Garment Worker Protection Act be passed next year, California may be on the trajectory to becoming the sustainable fashion capital of the world.
As new fashion systems are constructed, California provides a compelling case for a refined fashion system 2.0, as it possess all tiers of the fashion system within its state lines, from cotton farmers to fabric mills, dye houses to cut-and-sew factories.
It is also host to a growing number of brands championing ethical and sustainable fashion. One such business is Nana Atelier, a manufacturer that strives to normalize fair treatment of garment workers within this field. Founder Alnea Farahbella recalls the talent she came across in L.A. after living in Asia and traveling in Europe. There, people refer to the apparel producers as "machinists" and "technicians," whereas in L.A., producers were referred to as "factory workers" or "sewers" and considered low-skilled workers.
"We have so much potential here in L.A. A lot of technicians I've met, I think, 'You would be over at McQueen if you were in Europe,'" she says.
With the growing emphasis on "sustainable" fashion, change has begun. However, this momentum is routinely undercut by the businesses that continue to pay their workers sub-minimum wages.
Leveling the playing field can benefit businesses by increasing wage transparency, and establishing confidence that "Made in L.A." means ethical production. It's about getting enforceable standards in place.
"It's important that the U.S. have a garment manufacturing sector, to invest in it and protect it. It has a long history in L.A., there is a trained and experienced workforce here," says Nuncio. "We've let it become a shameful thing. But we can create a model that is different."