On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan. Today, we know our clothes are still often sewn in lethal conditions in foreign factories. Last year’s disastrous Rana Plaza collapse and a series of deadly factory fires resulted in much hand-wringing over how to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But 103 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we still have our own dirty garment secret, much closer to home.
There are some 5,000 garment manufacturers registered in Los Angeles County where an estimated 50,000 workers make clothes. The true numbers are almost certainly higher since many businesses do not report their employees, pay taxes, or carry insurance. Some L.A. garment factories are safe and decent workplaces where skilled employees make high-end denim, swimwear, and other products for elite brands. But in many others, where clothes are sewn for the “fast fashion” industry, the conditions are similar to those in New York sweatshops over a century ago or to those in Bangladesh today.
Bet Tzedek, the public-interest law firm where I practice, has represented hundreds of L.A. garment workers over the past decade, and their stories are sobering. Workers earn as little as two cents per completed garment. The pay, predictably, falls far below minimum wage, sometimes less than $200 for workweeks of 65 hours or more. Even in factories where breaks are permitted, piece-rate pay encourages workers to stay at their sewing machines for unbroken stretches. Musculoskeletal pain and related health problems are common. Over 100 years after workers were unable to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory because the doors were locked, some of our clients have worked in factories without access to fresh water or functioning bathrooms, where bales of fabric block fire exits, and where owners lock workers in the building during overnight shifts.
Statistics bear out our clients’ testimony. According to research conducted by UCLA, over 90% of garment workers in L.A. experience overtime violations, and more than 60% are not paid minimum wage. The federal Department of Labor (DOL) found violations in 93% of the 1,500 inspections of garment factories it has conducted since 2008.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In January 2000, a landmark law went into effect in California with the intention of eradicating garment sweatshop labor. Before passage of the law, known as AB633, factories that often had no assets other than a few sewing machines would close, move, or reorganize under a different name in response to legal claims, leaving workers empty handed. AB633 established an administrative process in which companies that contract with sweatshops can also be liable for a share of workers’ unpaid wages.
In response, the industry reorganized. Over the past decade, thousands of middleman companies sprang into existence to funnel orders from retailers to factories. These subcontractors create a buffer between workers and the fashion houses that profit from sweatshop conditions. Not coincidentally, this is the same subcontracting structure that now prevails in the garment industry around the world, surprising brands like Walmart and Sears when their production documents are recovered from places like the rubble of Rana Plaza or the ashes of the Tazreen factory.
While we assume that U.S. garment factories are well-regulated, my clients know better: their bosses simply lock the doors to workrooms when potential inspectors are seen approaching. And paying citations is a relatively minor cost of doing business in an industry where the vast majority of workers, many of whom are Asian or Latina immigrant women, are too afraid to file a complaint.
In response to the tragedies in Bangladesh, some companies have entered agreements to inspect and monitor the factories there. Here at home, there is no such movement. When the DOL found garments allegedly destined for Forever 21 stores being sewn by workers in L.A. making less than minimum wage, Forever 21 fought the agency’s subpoena in federal court, arguing that it shouldn’t be forced to disclose sensitive information such as where it makes clothes or what systems it has in place to monitor compliance with the law.
There is little incentive for the law-abiding sector of the industry to get involved. Fashion houses paying fair wages for domestic labor are not competing for the same customers as the companies using sweatshop labor. And organizing a low-wage, immigrant workforce on an industry-wide scale requires investments of time and money that have not been forthcoming.
What else can be done? Paying workers less than minimum wage is theft, and criminal prosecutions of factory owners could cause many to rethink their business models. Aggressive investigations by government agencies could begin to unpeel the layers of subcontracting that protect the reputations of retailers and keep the sweatshop system humming.
The simplest solution would be a law clarifying that retailers are liable to workers who prove they sewed garments sold in stores, regardless of who signed the contract with the factory or how many subcontractors were involved. Such a law would swiftly clean up supply chains. But it would also likely mean fewer inexpensive clothes for shoppers and could send more garment jobs overseas if we aren’t willing to pay more.
The question is whether we want sweatshops in our backyard. It took more than 1200 dead bodies for the Bangladesh agreements to be proposed. What will it take here?