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Let the Sweatshop Reform Law Work

Lora Jo Foo is an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. Julie A. Su is an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles. They are co-founders of Sweatshop Watch, a coalition working to eliminate sweatshop conditions

Last year, Gov. Gray Davis signed into law Assembly Bill 633, the sweatshop reform bill. Today, big-name retailers, hoping to have Davis safely tucked in their multimillion-dollar pockets, are pressuring him to exempt them from its requirements.

This law gives protection to the state’s 160,000 garment workers, the majority of whom are immigrant women toiling 60 to 70 hours a week in sweatshops for less than minimum wages and no overtime pay. The law makes explicit the garment manufacturers’ and retailers’ legal responsibility to ensure that the workers who sew their clothes at contractors’ facilities receive at least minimum wage and overtime pay. This law, which acknowledges the economic reality of manufacturers’ and retailers’ control over sweatshops, provides the state’s garment workers with a new legal tool to collect an estimated $73 million in unpaid wages each year.

The sweatshop reform law is only effective if it is enforced. The state Department of Industrial Relations is charged with adopting regulations to implement the new law, including a definition of “garment manufacturing,” which would determine when a retailer is acting as a manufacturer, and thus an express “guarantor” of the minimum wages and overtime pay of garment workers.

As the agency begins adopting regulations to enforce this law, retailers are threatening that they will pull their production out of California if the regulations include them. The same threats were made when California raised the minimum wage in 1997, yet the number of garment industry jobs has held steady.

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If the governor caves in to retailer pressure, he will contradict the intent, spirit and letter of the law. The authors of the bill intended to hold as “guarantors” of workers’ wages both the brand-name manufacturers that design and sell garments to retailers and the retailers themselves, which act as manufacturers, engaging in the production of their private labels.

The Gap is a classic example of a retailer-manufacturer. In fact, most department stores and discount chains produce their own private labels. J.C. Penney has the Arizona Jeans Co. label and Federated Department Stores has seven “power brands.” Bypassing manufacturers and producing their own designs is so lucrative for retailers that more than 30% of women’s apparel sold in the U.S. today--40% in California--is manufactured under private labels. Garment workers fare no better producing clothing for major retailers. When labor officials raided an El Monte sweatshop in 1995, they found 71 Thai immigrant workers behind razor wire, sewing the private labels of Mervyn’s, Montgomery Ward, Miller’s Outpost and other retailers.

Yet retailers are attempting to evade responsibility for the conditions of workers who sew their clothes. The American Apparel Manufacturers Assn. recently amended its bylaws to invite retailers to join it, citing the “blurred distinction between retailers and manufacturers of apparel.” Despite this and the fact that retailers with private labels design the garment, develop the technical specifications for its production, sew the samples, dictate the colors and fabric and maintain control over quality throughout the production process, retailers are demanding that the Department of Industrial Relations write them out of the definition of “garment manufacturing.” The Gap and Sears, Roebuck have written their own definition, one that would give retailers the governor’s blessing to use sweatshops and remain above the law.

When AB 633 was under consideration in Sacramento, lawmakers heard moving testimony from garment workers. Graciela Ceja, a Mexican immigrant who has worked in the Los Angeles garment industry for 17 years, said, “I earned $25 a day for 13 hours of work. I was paid less than $2 an hour. . . . Because we were either not paid or paid less than minimum wage, we workers could never buy the clothes that we made with our own hands.”

Workers like Ceja have suffered too long. If the governor and the Department of Industrial Relations succumb to the pressure of retailers, the state’s minimum wage and overtime protections will remain illusory. Davis and the DIR should not let threats from big business strip away this basic protection for the 160,000 garment workers who toil in sweatshop conditions in California.


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