Garment workers in America's fashion capital may make just $6 an hour. A new law could change that

Los Angeles is considered the center of garment manufacturing in America, employing over 40,000 people to make clothing for fashion brands including Reformation, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe and Wet Seal.

But for decades those workers have functioned under a system that sees them paid per piece they construct, meaning they often earn less than $6 per hour, according to a University of California, Los Angeles, study – less than half of California’s minimum wage.

Now, a new law could change that.

Related: LA's mask factories shut down as hundreds of workers get sick

California lawmakers recently approved the Garment Worker Protection Act, which would eliminate the piece rate system and ensure workers are paid an hourly minimum wage. The bill would also expand who is liable for stolen wages – meaning a brand like Charlotte Russe, for example, would share responsibility for paying out wage theft claims filed by workers who make their clothing in factories such as the ones in downtown LA. Right now, those claims are filed against the factories themselves but can languish for years before being paid out, if they ever are.

Marissa Nuncio, the director of the Garment Worker Center and a co-sponsor of the bill, says this latter part is key, because brands have long been able to shield themselves by shifting the blame on to the factories that make their clothing. “Through subcontracting, they’re really able to buffer themselves and evade any kind of legal liability for improper wages,” Nuncio says.

Garment workers and advocates say the current system has been designed to incentivize rapid production while exploiting workers – most of whom are immigrants and women of color.

Workers such as Santiago Puac, an immigrant from Guatemala who has been in the garment industry for 17 years. Pauc works on a single-needle sewing machine, attaching zippers and labels to dresses and other small finishing details. It’s a job he says has taken a lot of skill to learn, since such details can be complicated.

But the work pays him just 15 cents or less per piece, meaning even on highly productive days he’s only taking home $75 a day.

“It would be such a big change in my life,” Puac told the Guardian in Spanish of the proposed law. “Knowing I could have a secure income, a set number of work hours, and earn a just wage.”

The Garment Worker Protection Act has already cleared 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 heft to an existing law, passed in 1999, that also sought to address wage theft in the industry by setting up a restitution fund for wage theft claims that fashion companies pay into. But advocates say fashion brands have spent 20 years circumventing it by hiring contractors and claiming that they do not fall under its definition of “garment manufacturer”.

The law would make brands share joint liability with their contractors for unpaid wages, other compensation, interest, and penalties. Photograph: Wavebreakmedia Ltd UC103/Alamy Stock Photo

The new bill seeks to sharpen that definition by making brands share joint liability with their contractors for unpaid wages, other compensation, interest, and penalties.

The author of the bill, the state senator María Elena Durazo, says it originally intended to make brands fully liable for lost wages, but was later amended.

“Although personally I think they should be liable for everything, it gives recognition that the immediate employer would face the penalties and the brands would face the lost wages,” says Durazo.

While the California Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying organization, has labeled the bill a “jobs killer”, many fashion brands have come out in support of it, saying the bill will not only help workers but level the playing field between companies that pay a living wage and those that don’t.

In July, a coalition of at least 70 fashion businesses wrote an open letter to the Chamber of Commerce saying: “The sustainable business community wants a level playing field, enabled by strong labor laws, because we believe it is crucial for California fashion to flourish well into the 21st century.”

Senator Durazo says these business owners are often women whose brand relies on their image of environmental sustainability and caring about their employees. Nuncio put it more bluntly: “They don’t want to compete with sweatshop users.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has also added urgency to the issue. Thousands continued to work throughout California’s lockdowns, with many shifting to making masks. Poor working conditions caused many garment workers to contract the virus.

“The pandemic exposed the inequities in our economy and rather than turn our backs on those workers, now’s the time to fix it,” says Durazo. “If we want to bring real meaning to the word ‘essential workers’, then let’s do that by helping them support their families.”

Puac says the financial boost would help him better support his six children, most of whom still live in Guatemala. “I could be with my family more, eat nutritious food,” he said, adding that fashion brands should be excited for workers to have more money in their pockets; they might even spend it on new clothes.

“I think the brand selling the clothing also benefits, because having a minimum wage would mean more of us buying their products. All of us that will have money because we make the wage we deserve, we too will have money to spend.”

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