Thousands of garment workers in Los Angeles who make pants, shirts, blouses and other clothing for a variety of well-known fashion labels are paid less than minimum wage through a piece-rate payment system that compensates workers just a few cents per article of clothing.
Works say they typically work from 7am to 6pm Monday through Friday, and an additional five hours on Saturday – about 60 hours a week with no overtime pay, which results in overall wages at $5 an hour or less, far below California’s statewide minimum wage of $14 an hour for companies with more than 26 employees.
“We work non-stop. We don’t take any breaks, but make anywhere from $250 to $300 per week,” said one worker who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation and to protect her undocumented status.
During the pandemic, the worker explained that her employer and several other factories in the garment industry continued operating without enforcing Covid safety protocols, moving sewing machines into a windowless basement to hide production from regulatory authorities.
One factory – operated by Los Angeles Apparel – was ordered to shut down in July last year after a Covid-19 outbreak among workers resulted in more than 300 positive cases and the deaths of four workers.
“It’s very sad to live off of a salary that is $250 to $300 a week. It’s not enough to survive on. I have a mom, dad, and daughters in Guatemala, and I’m here paying rent with these wages. I can’t afford shoes or choose to move anywhere else,” the worker added.
A second garment factory worker explained that workers have to spend their brief meal breaks eating in a kitchen infested with rats and cockroaches, and when workers get injured they are expected to take care of themselves.
“Something that happens very commonly is the sewing needle will actually break through and impale one of your fingers, and many factories don’t even have a first aid kit,” said the worker.
“There’s not even a Band-Aid for you, so it’s up to you to pull the needle out of your finger. And there’s no health insurance for us. It’s really up to us to fix ourselves.”
During the pandemic, workers at her factory were laid off and not recalled to work until they were vaccinated several months ago, but because they are undocumented, they received no unemployment or stimulus benefits while out of work.
The majority of the more than 46,000 workers in the Los Angeles garment industry are undocumented immigrant women from Latin America and Asia who work long hours for very low wages with few or no breaks in conditions likened to sweatshops.
Though most clothing brands rely on outsourced garment workers abroad, part of the market is based in Los Angeles, so brands can quickly turn around immediate orders and tout their clothing as “Made in America”.
In 2016, the US Department of Labor conducted an investigation of the garment industry in Los Angeles, finding labor violations in 85% of the 77 factories randomly inspected during the investigation.
More than 80% of garment workers in Los Angeles have experienced wage theft. Cases of wage theft are so common that a restitution fund created for garment workers in California became insolvent from paying out so many claims when employers move, shut down or file for bankruptcy to avoid paying wage theft settlements. Many workers who win their wage theft claims never recoup any of their lost wages or have to wait several years to receive restitution.
Fashion brands including Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Urban Outfitters, Charlotte Russe, Los Angeles Apparel and several others have been linked to these factories in their supply chains.
Ayesha Barenblat, chief and founder of the nonprofit ethical fashion advocacy group Remake said: “Because the fashion industry has long pandered and catered to fast fashion and discount brands, one of the focuses of the industry has been to keep prices really low. And that means … that manufacturing employers find ways to reduce the take home pay of garment workers.
“The rock bottom prices brands pay result in factories cutting corners and essentially passing on all the risk to workers in terms of wages,” Barenblat said.
Worker groups are pushing for the passage of a California state bill, SB62, the Garment Worker Protection Act, which would end the piece-rate payment system employers use to pay workers below minimum wage, ensuring workers are paid at least the minimum wage per hour.
The legislation would also enforce joint liability for brands that benefit from the production of their clothing in these factories, but are not held accountable for rampant wage and labor violations. Last year, the legislation cleared the California senate but failed to reach a vote in the assembly, where it is again waiting to be voted on.
Some employers and industry groups have aggressively opposed the legislation, including the California Chamber of Commerce, which has listed the legislation on its “job killer” list. A coalition of more than 140 brands and businesses has signed on in support of the bill in a push for more ethical and sustainable fashion.
Cline explained that big brands at the top of clothing supply chains have hundreds of manufacturing factories competing for attention through a race to the bottom for who can offer the lowest prices.
“It’s concentrated brand power combined with the lack of any sort of real accountability for workers’ rights, and it just keeps driving wages down in factories and causing these sweatshop conditions,” she added.