A workers' advocacy group filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court Thursday against the popular teen clothing retailer Forever 21 Inc., alleging it engaged in unfair labor practices by systematically contracting work out to sweatshops.
The lawsuit by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center named 19 workers who allegedly sewed, ironed or packed Forever 21 clothing six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day, for far less than the minimum wage. The 19 worked for six different contractors who produced clothing for the company, the suit said, suggesting the problems were not isolated.
The suit also claimed contractors altered time cards to reduce hours, and later fired several workers when they complained to state investigators during a sweep.
When the state failed to respond to their complaints, the workers agreed to sue, said Julie Su, legal director for the center. Some workers saved labels from the clothing they sewed as evidence linking their work to the retailer. Su said workers' testimony indicated Forever 21 sought out contractors willing to violate minimum wage and overtime laws.
Officials with Forever 21 declined comment. The company, based in Los Angeles' downtown garment district, issued a statement saying it "is committed to providing all of its employees with fair wages and proper working conditions."
It said none of the workers named in the suit were directly employed by the company. "Based on our present understanding of these individuals' claims, we believe them to be meritless," the statement said.
One of the workers claiming damages, Araceli Castro, also participated in a previous suit filed by the center against retailers whose clothes were made using alleged slave labor in El Monte. A $4-million settlement was reached in that case. Castro returned to the garment industry, she said, because "working in factories is all I know."
The suit, which alleges violations of the state business code as well as wage and hour laws, asks the court to force the retailer to stop the practice, to reimburse workers for unpaid wages and to compensate them for retaliatory firings.