THEos Angeles is considered the center of clothing manufacturing in America, employing more than 40,000 people to make clothes for fashion brands such as Reformation, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe and Wet Seal.
But for decades, these workers have operated under a system that sees them paid by the piece they build, which means they often earn less than $ 6 an hour, according to a study by the ‘University of California, Los Angeles – less than half the California minimum wage.
Now a new law could change that.
California lawmakers recently approved the Garment Worker Protection Act, which would eliminate the piece-rate pay system and ensure workers receive a minimum hourly wage. The bill would also expand who is responsible for stolen wages – meaning that a brand like Charlotte Russe, for example, would share responsibility for paying for wage theft claims filed by workers who make their clothes at factories such as than those in downtown Los Angeles. Right now, these claims are being made against the factories themselves, but can languish for years before being paid, if ever they are.
Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center and co-sponsor of the bill, says the latter part is essential because brands have long been able to protect themselves by blaming the factories that make their clothes. “Thanks to outsourcing, they are really able to protect themselves and escape any form of legal liability for inappropriate wages,” explains the nuncio.
Garment workers and advocates say the current system was designed to induce rapid production while exploiting workers – most of whom are immigrants and women of color.
Workers like Santiago Puac, an immigrant from Guatemala who has worked in the garment industry for 17 years. Pauc works on a single-needle sewing machine, attaching zippers and tags to dresses and other small finishing details. He says it’s a job that takes a lot of skill to learn, as details like that can get complicated.
But the job only earns him 15 cents or less per coin, which means that even on very productive days, he only earns $ 75 a day.
âIt would be such a big change in my life,â Puac told The Guardian in Spanish of the proposed law. âKnowing that I could have a secure income, a set number of hours of work and a fair wage. “
The Garment Workers Protection Act has already approved the state legislature and is now awaiting the signature of Governor Gavin Newsom, who has until October to approve it.
The bill, which garment workers helped craft, would add weight to an existing law, passed in 1999, which also aimed to tackle wage theft in the industry by creating a restitution fund for claims for theft of wages to which fashion companies pay. But advocates say fashion brands have spent 20 years circumventing it by hiring subcontractors and claiming they don’t fall under its definition of “clothing manufacturer.”
The new bill seeks to refine this definition by requiring brands to share joint responsibility with their subcontractors for unpaid wages, other compensation, interest and penalties.
The bill’s author, State Senator MarÃa Elena Durazo, said it was originally aimed at making brands fully responsible for the lost wages, but was later changed.
âAlthough personally I think they should be responsible for everything, it recognizes that the immediate employer would face sanctions and brands would face lost wages,â says Durazo.
While the California Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying organization, called the bill a “job killer,” many fashion brands have come out in favor of the bill, saying the bill this law would not only help workers, but would level the playing field between companies that pay a living wage and those that do not.
In July, a coalition of at least 70 fashion companies wrote an open letter to the Chamber of Commerce saying: century. “
Senator Durazo says these business owners are often women whose brand is built on their image of environmental sustainability and cares about their employees. The nuncio said more bluntly: âThey don’t want to compete with the sweatshop users.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also added to the urgency of the problem. Thousands of people continued to work throughout the California lockdowns, many turning to mask making. Poor working conditions have caused many textile workers to contract the virus.
âThe pandemic has exposed the inequalities in our economy and rather than turning its back on these workers, now is the time to address them,â said Durazo. âIf we want to give real meaning to the word ‘essential workers’ then let’s do so by helping them support their families. “
Puac says the financial boost would help her better support her six children, most of whom still live in Guatemala. âI could be more with my family, eat nutritious food,â he said, adding that fashion brands should be happy that workers have more money in their pockets; they might even spend it on new clothes.
âI think the brand that sells the clothes also benefits, because having a minimum wage would mean we buy more of their products. All of us who will have money because we earn the wages we deserve, we too will have money to spend.