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Op-Ed: Garment workers behind ‘Made in the USA’ labels are horribly underpaid. Newsom can end the wage theft

Workers at sewing machines in a garment factory in Los Angeles.
Workers at sewing machines in a garment factory in Los Angeles.
(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times)

On Sept. 18, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is opening its new major exhibition “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” which will represent “the qualities that collectively define American fashion.”

As this celebration of American style unfurls in New York, California garment workers — the people who produce most American-made fashion — will be waiting to see if Gov. Gavin Newsom signs into law the Garment Worker Protection Act, SB 62, which the state Legislature passed last week.

The measure would eliminate the piece-rate system, which pays workers by the number of garments they sew (rather than an hourly wage), and would hold fashion brands liable when their contractors fail to pay the minimum wage — a practice known as “wage theft.” Under the current piece-rate system, workers earn as little as 5 cents to sew a side seam or 10 cents to sew a neck.

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The $1.5-trillion-a-year fashion business is among the least regulated industries. And while offshore sweatshops often make headlines for their labor abuses, there are sweatshops in the United States, too.

State Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), who introduced SB 62, labor advocates and even some fashion brands believe it’s time to end such practices in California. Since the 1990s, most U.S. garment industry jobs have moved offshore to Mexico, Central America, and Asia, where production prices are a fraction of domestic costs and there is little or no oversight. Today, 3% of fashion sold in the United States is American-made, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, and most of it is manufactured in Los Angeles.

There are approximately 45,000 garment workers in the Los Angeles apparel industry, according to the Garment Worker Center, an anti-sweatshop nonprofit group. The center has found that less than one-third of the region’s garment workers are paid the state minimum wage, which is currently $13 to $14 an hour, depending on the number of company employees. The rest are paid off the books, many making less than $3 an hour. Like garment workers offshore, the undeclared workers earn no overtime, have no health benefits, and often labor in unsafe conditions. Yet the clothes they produce are still allowed to bear the “Made in the USA” label.

“If they don’t get paid what they are owed, those workers can’t pay their rent, can’t feed their families, and that all comes back to the rest of us,” Durazo said in an interview earlier this month. Thirty-five years ago, she was a garment worker union organizer in Los Angeles. “I spent my time in those shops,” she said. “Back then, wage theft was not the business model. But today it is.”

In the past six years, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Dillard’s, Charlotte Russe, Forever 21 and Ross Dress for Less have all been caught selling clothes produced by Los Angeles workshops that violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Brands and retailers often deny responsibility because they claim that their contractors had surreptitiously subcontracted the orders.

Durazo finds such defenses ridiculous. “They hire the contractors,” she said. “They should be held responsible.”

California is not the only government trying to hold brands accountable for their supply chains. This summer, the German parliament approved the Corporate Due Diligence in Supply Chains Act, which goes into effect in 2023 and will make large companies legally responsible for human rights and environmental violations within their global supply chains. In March, the European Parliament introduced a legislative directive on corporate due diligence and accountability for companies operating in the European Union. It is expected to be taken up by the European Commission later this year or early in 2022.

SB 62 is the California Legislature’s second run at garment industry labor reform. The first attempt last year didn’t make it to a floor vote. This time, however, more than 150 brands and organizations are supporting it, including Eileen Fisher, Boyish Jeans, Reformation, and Saitex, a major jeans manufacturer.

Opponents, which include the California Chamber of Commerce, claim that it will be a job killer. “But I don’t know why making companies pay minimum wage would force them to shut down or move offshore,” Durazo said, “unless that’s the only way they feel they can do business.” If that’s the case, maybe they need to rethink their business model.

If SB 62 is signed into law by Newsom, contractors will be made to pay workers what they are due, which will boost state income tax revenue, reduce demands for social services and lift more workers out of poverty. The enactment of this law could also push the Biden administration and Congress to support similar labor protections at a national level. Only then will we have American fashion worth honoring.

The bill aims to hold clothing companies accountable for the labor practices of their subcontractors — closing a longstanding loophole.

Dana Thomas is the author of “Fashionopolis: Why What We Wear Matters.”


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