Witnesses Describe the Misery of Home-Based Garment Work

Times Labor Writer

Salvadoran immigrant Sonia Galan and her sister Dora worked together making about 80 dresses a week on piece rate for a Central Los Angeles company during 1987 and 1988. They did not work at the company’s factory, but in Galan’s two-room apartment in El Sereno, in contravention of state and federal laws prohibiting the manufacture of women’s apparel in the home.

“We never earned anything close to $3.35,” the state minimum wage until July 1, 1988, “and often made less than $1 an hour,” said Galan, 30.

She said she has abandoned homework for factory labor because she made less money at home than in a factory and was unable to give adequate care to her young child while sewing. Galan said her desire to save on child-care expenses had been her primary reason for wanting to work at home, but it hadn’t worked out as she had hoped.

Galan and two other Latina seamstresses Thursday provided an unusual glimpse into the shabby underside of Los Angeles’ multibillion-dollar garment industry. They testified at a Labor Department hearing considering the possibility of lifting a 47-year-old federal ban on manufacturing women’s clothes in the home.


Steven T. Nutter, western regional director of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, said Galan’s story is typical of the experiences of about 30,000 women, overwhelmingly Latina and Asian immigrants, who sew at home in Los Angeles.

Nutter predicted that if the Labor Department ban is lifted, the number of women sewing at home in Los Angeles will triple and asserted that the Department has inadequate resources to protect them from unscrupulous businessmen who fail to pay the minimum wage.

Thursday’s session was the first time, according to local labor experts, that any of the city’s thousands of home-based garment workers have testified at a public hearing and they offered vivid evidence that the state and federal bans on such work are simply not enforced.

Galan, Maria Saldana, also a Salvadoran immigrant, and Celia Barragan, who came here from Mexico when she was 7, all talked of long hours, low pay, no overtime, increased electrical bills, stress and other health problems, and the frustration of trying to supervise and comfort children while working.


The two Salvadorans spoke in Spanish and presented written statements in Spanish and English.

Barragan, speaking in English, described how she helped her mother make clothes from 7 to 16 years of age at apartments in Los Angeles, Inglewood and South Gate. She said that her mother made less than $100 a week even though she “would stay in front of the sewing machine all day long and often until late at night. She would get up only to eat or to cook,” and worked half-days on weekends but was never paid overtime.

“The worst thing about homework was that my mother was always under pressure,” Barragan said. “When we had to meet a deadline, sometimes we had to work until 11:30 at night. I believe that working this much and staying up late interfered with my school work.”

Barragan said the family’s living room “was always piled high with pieces of material, bags of garments and the sewing machines. . . . We could never escape the dust and lint. We had coughs from the dust constantly and often got skin rashes from the material. “

Now a student at UCLA, Barragan said her mother’s attempts to work and watch two “little ones” wreaked havoc on family life. “She would make a mistake because she could not concentrate, and yell at my little brother and sister for making too much noise or getting into the garments.”

Saldana, 38, and the mother of three, described similar problems to those encountered by the two other women--low pay and difficulties in caring for her children while working.

“I sewed at home for five to seven different companies, always sewing women’s clothes. I never made anything close to $3.35 an hour, except when I sewed wedding dresses,” Saldana said.

“I made blouses for one company. I earned about $80 for 56 to 60 hours of sewing, or about $1.40 an hour. I made women’s underwear in 1986. I had to measure and cut the lace and then sew the garment. Each piece took me 20 to 25 minutes, but I was paid only 35 cents for each piece. So I earned no more than $1.05 an hour.”


Ultimately, she became disgusted with the garment work and is now making tamales at home and selling them out of her house or on street corners.

Nutter of the Garment Workers Union said the highly decentralized nature of the women’s apparel industry in California encourages the use of home workers. He said many of the home workers here are highly unlikely to report violations of minimum wage or overtime laws because they fear deportation.

Like several other witnesses at the hearing, Nutter predicted that if the federal ban is lifted, it will increase the pressure to lift a comparable California ban and increase pressures on California garment manufacturers to employ more home workers to stay competitive.

California Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp also testified against lifting the federal ban. “Relaxation of the federal homework ban will very likely result in increased unlawful activities in this state and an increased burden on state law enforcement,” he said.

Labor Department officials have not said if or when they will formally propose lifting the ban. Three more hearings are scheduled this spring. The overwhelming bulk of testimony at the first four hearings has been against lifting the ban.

During the presidential campaign, George Bush advocated lifting the ban and one Labor Department official here said she thought the matter was considered one of “urgency” by the Bush Administration. Van de Kamp said he hoped the testimony presented in Los Angeles would help persuade the Labor Department to maintain the ban.