How Newsom Can Stop Salary Theft in California’s Apparel Industry

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

As this celebration of American style takes place in New York City, Californian garment workers – the people who produce most of American fashion – will wait to see if Governor Gavin Newsom enacts the Garment Workers Protection Act, SB 62, as the state legislature was passed last week.

The measure would eliminate the piecemeal system, which pays workers based on the number of garments they sew (rather than an hourly wage), and hold fashion brands accountable when their subcontractors fail to pay minimum wage. – a practice known as “theft wages.” Under the current piece rate system, workers only earn 5 cents for sewing a side seam or 10 cents for sewing a collar.

The $ 1.5 trillion per year fashion industry is one of the least regulated industries. And while offshore sweatshops often make headlines for their labor abuses, there are sweatshops in the United States as well.

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

There are about 45,000 garment workers in the Los Angeles garment industry, according to the Garment Worker Center, an anti-sweatshop nonprofit group. The center found that less than a third of the region’s garment workers are paid the state’s minimum wage, which is currently $ 13 to $ 14 an hour, depending on the number of employees in the business. The rest are paid off the books, many making less than $ 3 an hour. Like overseas textile workers, undeclared workers do not earn overtime, have no health benefits, and often work in hazardous conditions. However, the clothes they produce are still allowed to carry the “Made in USA” label.

“If they don’t get paid what they are owed, these workers cannot pay their rent, cannot feed their families, and it all comes back to the rest of us,” Durazo said in an interview at the start of the report. month. Thirty-five years ago she was a garment workers union organizer in Los Angeles. “I spent my time in these stores,” she said. “At the time, wage theft was not the business model. But today it is. “

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

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

California isn’t the only government trying to hold brands accountable for their supply chains. This summer, the German parliament approved the law on business due diligence in supply chains, which will come into force in 2023 and will make large companies legally responsible for human rights and environmental violations in the country. within their global supply chains. In March, the European Parliament presented a legislative directive on due diligence and liability of companies operating in the European Union. It is expected to be taken over by the European Commission later this year or early 2022.

SB 62 is the California Legislature’s second round to labor reform in the garment industry. The first attempt last year did not result in a floor vote. This time, however, more than 150 brands and organizations are supporting her, including Eileen Fisher, Boyish Jeans, Reformation and Saitex, a major manufacturer of jeans.

Opponents, including the California Chamber of Commerce, say it will be a job killer. “But I don’t know why forcing companies to pay minimum wage would force them to shut down or move overseas,” Durazo said, “unless that’s the only way for them to do business.” If so, they may need to rethink their business model.

If SB 62 is enacted by Newsom, entrepreneurs will be forced to pay workers what is owed to them, which will increase state tax revenues, reduce demands on 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 nationwide. Only then will we have American fashion worthy of honor.

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


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