Across the United States, the movement for an increase in minimum wage is growing, but for Los Angeles’ 46,000-plus garment workers, getting paid any minimum wage has been an ongoing struggle. Senate Bill 62, introduced by California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo in December, aims to change this.
One of the central goals of SB-62 is ending the piece rate practice, where, in lieu of an hourly wage, workers are paid per piece produced. “It actually is used as a way to further exploit those workers,” says Senator Durazo. “My first job in the labor movement was as an organizer in the garment industry, in the late ’70s, and what existed then still exists today.”
Piece rate work often results in wages that fall well below the federal, let alone city, minimum. According to Daisy Gonzalez, lead organizer for Garment Worker Center, workers can be paid as low as two cents per piece and will put in more than 60 hours per week. “We supported workers who work 60 hour weeks and can be paid by an employer $100 in cash,” she says by phone.
A December report from Garment Worker Center noted that, on average, garment industry workers are earning $5.85 an hour through piece rates, with some wages falling as low as $2.68 an hour. Should SB-62 pass, employers could no longer pay solely per piece. However, a piece rate could be applied as an incentive on top of an hourly wage. “It has to be above and beyond the legal minimum wage, so that way it really is an incentive,” Durazo explains.
Back in 1995, the raid of a factory in El Monte brought the exploitation of garment workers to national attention when it was discovered that Thai immigrants had been enslaved at the complex, where they were making clothing for major brands. This led to the passage of AB 633, the Garment Worker Protection Act, in 1999. While AB 633 provided a path for workers to collect unpaid wages, actually getting the money that’s owed to them is a challenge. “We have had clients waiting in excess of five years to collect on the money that is owed to them,” says Dana Hadl, directing attorney for Employment Rights Project with Bet Tzedek Legal Services.
One reason for this is due to the layers of contractors and subcontractors that essentially shield the brand—who may be placing high volume, quick turnaround orders for low prices—from the responsibility of abiding by labor laws. “That’s why this problem has been able to continue,” says Gonzalez, “because these brands get off the hook. They keep producing clothing at such low cost that workers are not able to even make minimum wage based on their cost of production.”
SB-62 also aims to close loopholes in existing laws that have allowed major brands to shirk responsibility for these practices. “It’s a corporate responsibility,” says Hadl, for brands to make sure that they’re contracting with factories who are paying minimum wage. “They’re reaping the benefits of being able to have their T-shirt produced for $2 and then selling that same T-shirt for $20,” she adds. “And, at the same time, the people who are making these T-shirts are waiting five-plus years to be paid out by this state because nobody else is able to accept any sort of liability for the wage violations that they’ve suffered.”
All this has been exacerbated by the pandemic. A recent UCSF study indicated a 44 percent increase in death rates amongst sewing machine workers. Ironically, some of those workers might be making PPE in unsafe conditions. Last summer, L.A. Apparel’s factory was shut down twice by the health department after a COVID-19 outbreak that resulted in over 375 cases and four deaths.
Garment Worker Center’s December report made note of some of the hazards facing those who are on the job during the pandemic. This includes a lack of social distancing, masks, hand soap in bathrooms and paid sick leave. There are also the hazards that come as a result of the piece rate; when you’re paid based on how much you produce, there may not be time to wash your hands or clean your workstation regularly throughout your shift.
“It’s really disappointing that this is a workforce that is considered essential and was considered essential at the start of the pandemic, but basic things like making minimum wage is something that’s still not happening for workers,” says Gonzalez. “I think it just points to the importance of the bill.”
Despite all this, there is a growing list of businesses, including Frogtown’s Suay Sew Shop and sustainable fashion brand Reformation, who are in support of fair labor practices for garment workers. Gonzalez says that they’ve heard from allied businesses who are concerned about brands who promote items as being made in Los Angeles, but aren’t following the city’s minimum wage, or who are engaging in “greenwashing,” by marketing sustainability when workers are being exploited. “When we talk about sustainability, we also want to talk about whether workers are being taken care of and protected,” says Gonzalez.
“This industry has an issue with labor law violations,” she adds, “but, we have a lot of partners who are doing things right and that’s why they’re supportive of this bill.”
As for consumers who want to support garment workers, action might mean more than conscientious shopping. Says Hadl, “If people want change, then they should use their voices, not only their spending money, but also their actual voices, to uphold their lawmakers and express support for this bill.”