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Garment Jobs: Hard, Bleak and Vanishing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She left Puebla, Mexico, seven years ago to work in the garment factories of Los Angeles. She thought the days of dirt-poor wages were long behind her.

But things have not gone well for Hilda Aguilar.

As sewing jobs chased cheap labor in Mexico or were lost to technology in the last two years, Aguilar’s paycheck has shrunk by about 40%.

She now earns far less than the state minimum wage of $5.75 an hour, but Aguilar is not about to complain. Like thousands of other immigrant workers in Southern California’s huge apparel industry, she is grateful for whatever work she can find.

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“It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of work for little money, but what are we going to do?” said the mother of three, whose husband sews in the same downtown factory. Their combined income is about $300 a week, barely enough to cover rent on a small two-bedroom house. They can’t afford a telephone.

“We have no options,” she said. “We can’t go back [to Mexico]. Our children were born here. Our lives are here.”

From the aging shops of central Los Angeles to newer industrial buildings in the suburbs, garment workers paint a consistently bleak picture: less pay, more wage and hour violations and a heightened sense of insecurity.

Conditions for many of the region’s estimated 61,000 sewing machine operators have worsened despite media attention to garment sweatshops and enforcement sweeps by state and federal regulators--prompted in part by the 1995 discovery of Thai nationals working as virtual slaves in an El Monte factory.

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Industry experts see little hope for improvement. Mexico has become increasingly attractive to clothing manufacturers as provisions of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement take effect, slicing tariffs and trade barriers. At the same time, quality and turnaround times in Mexican factories have begun to approach those of Los Angeles shops.

“This is not a situation that enforcement alone can solve,” said Jose Millan, state deputy labor commissioner. “The industry is being changed by market forces and international treaties, and the people who are the most susceptible to abuse and exploitation are being left to suffer the consequences.”

Millan spoke during a recent Sunday check of sewing factories in South El Monte, second to Los Angeles in garment production jobs. Just a few miles from the infamous Thai factory, inspectors that day found minimum-wage and overtime violations in each of 12 shops.

That’s hardly shocking in an industry with a historical noncompliance rate of about 80%, but Millan said the contractors targeted that day had been making an effort to follow the law. “These are all registered contractors, the best of the bunch,” he said. “If it’s happening here, just imagine what’s going on in the underground shops.”

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Rather than view the state inspectors as allies, however, workers worried that the raids would cost them precious time at their machines. With piece rates dropping fast, they had to work harder and longer to match earnings of just a year ago.

“For two operations, the hem and the sleeve, I get 13 cents,” said Aldegunda Sanchez, a native of Queretaro, Mexico, who has worked in the California garment industry for five years. “I used to get 8 cents for each operation. Now, sometimes they pay only 18 cents for three operations.

“It is the same problem wherever you go,” she said, fingering the striped Bugle Boy T-shirt she was about to assemble on her seventh straight day at the machine. “There isn’t much work anymore. When there is work, you take advantage of it.”

Paying by piece rather than by time is common practice and perfectly legal, as long as the rate works out to be at or above the $5.75 minimum hourly wage. But more than a dozen interviews with workers in downtown Los Angeles and South El Monte found a pattern of shrinking piece rates and chronic underpayment--as little as $150 for a 50-hour week.

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Workers Become Willing Accomplices

To get around labor laws, some workers conceded they punched time cards hours after starting work or before leaving. During the Sunday check, inspectors found most employees had “forgotten” to punch in at all.

The workers had become willing accomplices because they considered themselves lucky to have a job, no matter how badly paid. “Where I work, there were 50 people; now there are 15,” said Juana, a downtown sewing machine operator who asked that her last name be withheld.

A 13-year veteran of the garment business, Juana supports her four children on a $250-per-week salary, supplemented by food stamps. She works Monday through Saturday, 55 hours in all. Five years ago, she earned $400 a week doing piecework. But those days are gone forever.

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“Everyone says keep what you have, even if it is no good,” she said. “If you leave, there are two more waiting to take your place.”

The contractors who hire sewing machine operators are hardly better off. Squeezed by manufacturers’ demands for lower production costs, many said they face three unpleasant choices: go to Mexico, violate minimum-wage laws or close shop altogether.

“I lost money on those dresses because I had to pay overtime to meet the deadline,” said Maria Kim, co-owner of JE Fashion, nodding toward a rack of flowered spring dresses. She was paid $4 to produce each dress. A worker would have to make about 60 dresses a day just to earn the minimum wage.

“I’m tired of this business,” said Kim, a 12-year veteran. She has already cut her staff in half, to 30 workers. Soon, she said, her seventh-floor factory may join the many padlocked spaces downtown.

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While yet to be reflected in state employment figures--which show hard-to-track garment jobs holding steady after several years of growth--the street-level perceptions ring true for analysts and researchers who study the business.

Several expect 1999 figures to show a significant loss in apparel jobs. They said the decline in sewing machine operators could be partially offset by growth in white-collar jobs, such as managers who coordinate offshore production.

For three years, sewing production jobs have gone to Mexico, as well as Asia, the Caribbean and South America. The rate appears to be accelerating. The exodus makes news when big-name employers, such as Guess or, more recently, Levi Strauss cut thousands of U.S. workers. But even mid-sized manufacturers have found the lure of cheap labor to be irresistible, particularly as quality and turnaround times have improved.

One indication: a 1997 survey by sociologist Judi Kessler of UC Santa Barbara found 64% of Los Angeles manufacturers now source at least some production work in Mexico, more than triple the 1992 number. And Kessler said subsequent interviews have found even more jobs going south.

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In another decade, most agree, the Southern California apparel industry will be vastly changed, with greater opportunities for designers, managers and sophisticated production workers but little room for basic sewing machine operators who have been the backbone of the industry.

“Those on the bottom will be squeezed out. Their jobs will disappear, as tragic as that may be,” said Linda Wong, work force development director for the Community Development Technologies Center, which is trying to build on the industry’s strengths. “The Darwinian principle has been at work for some time. All we can hope for now is to slow it down long enough to point it in another, more positive direction.”

For workers at the bottom--particularly undocumented immigrants, who account for about 60% of the labor force and have come to depend on the garment trade for entry-level jobs--the transition promises to be brutal.

“God knows what those workers will do,” Kessler said. “The women might go into domestic work. Some of the men might become day laborers. Immigrants are extremely resourceful when it comes to finding jobs. But still, we’re talking about an enormous number of people.”

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Raul Hinojosa, who directs the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA, said what becomes of thousands of displaced immigrant garment workers could have a tremendous impact--good or bad--on the city that once drew them north.

“This is a metaphor for Los Angeles, which for the last 25 years has boomed on the availability of low-wage immigrant labor from Mexico,” he said. “Now, increasingly, trade competition from low-wage countries is targeted specifically at those low-wage immigrants.

“The city needs to understand that we’re in the middle of a structural crisis, that the labor market that helped the economy grow is going to suffer dramatic change, and we don’t have a master plan for how to deal with it.”

On their own, some garment workers already have made a plan.

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Aided by the tight labor market, some have moved into construction, food processing or other expanding occupations. Some have gone to new immigrant job centers such as Las Vegas and Atlanta.

So many have moved on, in fact, that a small number of contractors face a shortage of experienced, documented workers who are able to operate complex sewing machines.

But most appear to be focused on stretching ever-smaller paychecks, too overwhelmed with survival to look much beyond the next day’s work.

That was certainly the case one recent evening at Las Familias del Pueblo, a storefront community center for garment workers in downtown Los Angeles. Workers dashed in to pick up children from the center’s after-school program. Others sat on folding chairs, straining to focus on the chatter of a conversational English teacher after 10 mind-numbing hours behind a sewing machine.

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“It’s hard, because what you earn doesn’t cover expenses,” said Analilia, who in two years has seen the piece rate for a jacket collar drop from $1 to 75 cents. “Before, we could buy the children two pairs of shoes. Now they only get one. But what they really don’t understand is why we can’t go to McDonald’s like we used to. Now we just drive past.”


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