Op-Ed

In L.A.’s garment industry, ‘Made in the USA’ can mean being paid $3 an hour

Just as the busiest shopping period of the year got underway, the U.S. Department of Labor released a bombshell report that might make you suspicious of clothing that’s “Made in the USA.” After a three-year comprehensive study, the Labor Department confirmed what workers’ rights advocates like me have long contended: Worker abuse and wage theft is rampant in the U.S. garment industry.

The report revealed that 85% of garment industry employers studied were violating federal minimum wage and record-keeping laws. More than 660 investigations involving 5,158 workers over three years documented $8,098,988 in stolen wages.

Los Angeles has the highest concentration of garment industry workers in the country. Largely located south and east of downtown, some 2,000 manufacturers employ more than 40,000 people — mostly immigrant women — who spend 10 to 12 hours a day cutting, sewing and dyeing clothing that includes designer jeans and runway knock-offs. Even as California leads the way in protecting workers’ rights and raising the minimum wage, thousands of Angelenos are being cheated by these employers.

At the 77 Southern California factories investigated, garments from a dozen clothing brands were identified, but three appeared far more frequently than the rest: Ross Dress for Less, TJ Maxx and Forever 21.

The idea that “Made in America” could mean made for $3 an hour might come as a shock in 2016. But it does not surprise me and it cannot possibly surprise executives at those three retailers.

These brands claim that they aren’t responsible for the working conditions at their suppliers’ factories. And yet they willfully ignore complaints about violations of the most basic wage and working hour laws. At the legal nonprofit where I work, we’ve documented 10- and 12-hour shifts without breaks or overtime. We’ve seen hundreds of workers taking home less than $5 an hour — half of California’s current minimum wage. We have repeatedly sought Ross, TJ Maxx and Forever 21’s help in addressing wage violations committed by their suppliers — but they have chosen instead to fight us in court, withhold information about their suppliers, and do all they can to keep industry labor practices hidden.

They are unabashed by the latest Labor Department report. In response, they released statements saying they take the findings “seriously.” There was no condemnation of their contractors. No change in business practice. For these retailers, responding to these reports and fighting an occasional subpoena are just a cost of doing business.

For garment workers, filing a wage theft claim with the state’s labor commissioner or in Superior Court represents a terrifying risk. They will almost certainly experience retaliation: firing, threats of violence or deportation, blacklisting from future employment.

Leticia Molina’s story is typical: She used a single-needle sewing machine to stitch shirtsleeves, sew buttons, attach zippers and cuff pant legs in Los Angeles factories for 20 years. She worked 55-hour weeks and took extra pieces home on the weekend. For this she was paid 6 cents to 12 cents per item, which amounted to less than $250 per week. At 53, she was still the primary wage earner for her household when she filed a claim with the California Labor Commission. She knew, however, that repetitive stress injuries to her hands were slowing her down and that she would almost certainly be fired eventually. Remaining silent was unsustainable as her rent went up and her pay per piece went down.

After more than a year of litigation, Molina won a judgment for more than $40,000 in unpaid wages and penalties. But the contractor she worked for lacked the funds to pay her full judgment. Rather than litigate further, Molina accepted a reduced recovery from the state’s Garment Workers Fund. None of the retailers who benefited from her work were held accountable.

Ross, TJ Maxx and Forever 21 would rather sell $5 T-shirts than pay their suppliers enough to cover a minimum wage for workers. Systemic change will require reversing the economic incentives for this gross misconduct. Holiday shoppers can start by voting with their wallets and refusing to purchase questionably produced apparel. Let these companies know that “Made in America” means nothing if it does not first mean “Made without Abuse.”

Jessie Kornberg is CEO of the public interest law firm Bet Tzedek, which provides legal aid to garment workers in Los Angeles.

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