It’s time to clean up the Los Angeles garment industry’s dirty secret 3

It’s time to clean up the Los Angeles garment industry’s dirty secret


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?


Kevin Kish

About Kevin Kish

Kevin Kish is the Director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles. He leads Bet Tzedek’s employment litigation, policy and outreach initiatives, focusing on combating illegal retaliation against low-wage workers and litigating cases involving human trafficking for forced labor.

5 New Year’s resolutions for California employers

5 New Year’s resolutions for California employers


By Joan Herrington

It’s the time of year when we think about making a fresh start for the new year.  Since I spend my days witnessing the consequences of workplace problems, I thought I would offer a few New Year’s resolutions I would like to see California employers make.

1.  Communicate with your employees.  Make sure they know what is expected of them and how they can succeed at their jobs.  Uncertainty creates anxiety and anxiety creates inefficiency. Whenever practicable, consult with employees about the things that will affect them.  Few things are more demoralizing than feeling ignored and unable to control your future.

2.  Pay them a living wage.  Your employees will be better able to focus on their work and productivity if they aren’t worrying about paying their bills.  So how about increasing the wages your lowest-level employees earn to something livable?  Some cities are demanding that employers do just that through their living wage ordinances.  And, at the state level, California is raising the minimum wage this year.  Although California’s minimum wage is not due to increase until July 1, 2014, some cities will increase their minimum wage rates as of January 1, 2014.  For example, San Francisco’s minimum wage is increasing from $10.55 to $10.74 an hour and in San Jose the rate will go up from $10 to $10.15 an hour.  Check your city’s ordinances to see if it will also increase the minimum wage rate in 2014.  By bridging the wage gap, we can get the economy back on track for working people.  In fact, studies by renowned economists show that such minimum wage increases can “serve to stimulate the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings potentially raising demand and job growth.”

3.  Don’t underestimate the contributions of older workers.  Older workers are an experienced, dedicated, under-utilized resource.  Studies show that older workers are skillful, reliable, focused, and loyal employees.

4.  Welcome veterans into your workforce.  Our armed forces have had a hard enough time fighting for us in foreign lands.  Don’t make our workplaces another battlefield for them.  Be sure to update your discrimination policies to prohibit discrimination and harassment based on military or veteran status.  Assembly Bill 556 amended the Fair Employment and Housing Act to add military or veteran status as a protected characteristic.  Train hiring officers so that they may inquire into an applicant’s military or veteran status in order to provide a preference in hiring, but make sure they know to keep this information confidential.  And train managers to assist veterans with re-entry into the civilian workforce.

5.  Don’t let a discrimination or harassment complaint become a trigger for retaliation.  Every employee complaint of unfairness deserves a prompt, thorough investigation.  The EEOC provides guidelines on conducting investigations.  If you find that someone engaged in harassment or discrimination, don’t make excuses for them.  Take action to stop the wrong-doing and punish the wrong-doer.  Even if your investigation exonerates an accused supervisor, take affirmative steps to prevent retaliation.  It’s hard for someone accused not to bear a grudge.  Remember that how you handle complaints and prevent retaliation speaks volumes to all of your employees about your quality as an employer.

May 2014 be a productive and fulfilling year for you and the people who work so hard to make your business a success!


Joan Herrington

About Joan Herrington

As a former Administrative Law Judge with the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission, Joan focuses on protecting employment rights. Joan helps the Department of Fair Employment and Housing enforce the Fair Employment and Housing Act by representing employees in lawsuits, such as discrimination and harassment based on race, national origin, color, pregnancy, sex, sexual orientation, disability, medical condition, age, and religion. Joan also focuses on protecting employees and whistleblowers from unlawful retaliation. As a qualified and experienced mediator, Joan also helps resolve employment disputes.

Heralding USERRA — the unknown law that protects jobs at home while military members serve

Heralding USERRA -- the unknown law that protects jobs at home while military members serve

military-man-station-6081107By Sarah Schlehr

I am proud to say that my younger brother is a Veteran of the Marine Reserves.  He served two tours of active duty—both in Iraq.  Being a Marine is part of his identity and something he will wear as a badge of honor through his life.

My brother signed up for the Marine Reserves shortly after 9/11.  While I personally did not support our invasion of Iraq, I always supported our troops and personally witnessed the commitment and passion of my then 19 year old brother in wanting to protect our country’s freedoms.

At the time of his first call to duty, my brother was just 22.  He worked a full-time job at a grocery store in the Midwest.  Although I make my living representing employees in legal disputes with employers, his was my first experience with the ways employers, whether knowingly or through ignorance, violate the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

Though his job paid just over the minimum wage, my brother was on management track and entitled to health benefits.  That is, he was until he notified his employer that he had been called to active duty for service in Iraq.

Shortly before my brother left for Iraq, his manager called him into his office and had him sign a paper stating that he was being reduced to part-time hours, but that he would be eligible to return to full-time status if and when he returned.  Unhappy with this demand, but also preoccupied with his impending departure to active military service and unfamiliar with his rights under USERRA, my brother signed the paper and left.

After sharing his frustration with others more knowledgeable about the law, he went back to the store, and asked to see the paper that he had signed.  He then tore it in half.  His stunned manager asked him if he was walking out of the job.  My brother responded “No, I’ll be back in about a year,” and left for Iraq.

It is shameful that so many military service members are uninformed about their rights under USERRA, the federal law designed to protect their civilian jobs, and to ensure their re-employment after deployment.  Ignorance of the law appears to be rampant. And despite efforts by both the Department of Labor and the Department of Defense to educate employers on their obligations under USERRA, complaints by service members are on the rise.

USERRA requires employers to provide service members time off to serve in the military and to restore them to their jobs promptly when they return from duty.   Importantly, it also requires the employer to continue medical coverage for service members and their dependents through any employer-based health plan for up to 24 months and prohibits discrimination and retaliation against service members.  In my brother’s case, the employer’s attempt to move him to a part-time position could have impacted his entitlement to coverage during his tour of duty.

It is impossible to determine the actual number of USERRA violations because there is no central collection point for reporting claims. And some service members, like my brother, may never formally complain.  However, we do know that complaints filed with the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), an agency within the Department of Defense, and through the Veterans in Employment and Training Service (VETS), an office within the Department of Labor rose between 2010 and 2011, the most recent years for which numbers are currently available.

The Defense Department’s ESGR attempts to informally resolve service members’ complaints through the use of volunteer ombudsman.  During FY 2011, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the ESGR mediated 2,884 USERRA cases.  Over 1500 of them involved problems with job reinstatement and reemployment. Although instructive, these numbers don’t tell the whole story since there is no requirement that employees complain to the ESGR nor are they required to participate in mediation.  At the same time, the Department of Labor VETS program reviewed 1,548 new unique USERRA complaint cases, up 8% from the previous year.

These numbers do not tell the whole story.   Many service members are unaware of their rights under USERRA.  Even those who know about USERRA may be reluctant to pursue legal recourse.  Those who do pursue their rights may utilize legal avenues outside of the ESGR and VETS.

Fortunately, my brother came home from Iraq safely and was able to return to his job.  When he returned, he went back to the same store and manager and experienced no serious repercussions or retaliation.  He still isn’t sure if his former employer was intentionally violating the law or just ignorant of its protections.

But not everyone is so lucky.  Much more needs to be done to educate both employers and service members of their employment rights, to track violations, to punish violators, and to provide redress.  Surely, that’s the least we can do to repay the sacrifices made by  the men and women protecting our country.

Sarah Schlehr

About Sarah Schlehr

Sarah B. Schlehr is the founder of The Schlehr Law Firm, P.C. Her firm focuses on representing employees who are discriminated against because of pregnancy or for taking a leave of absence. Her firm also represents veterans who have been discriminated against for taking military leave. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School, Brigham Young University, Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, and the Strauss Institutes’ Program on Mediating the Litigated Case.

Something to celebrate this Veterans Day

Something to celebrate this Veterans Day


By Elizabeth Kristen

With the largest population of veterans of any state in the country, California has an extra reason to celebrate this Veteran’s Day.  Just last month, Governor Brown signed a new law that will prohibit employment discrimination and harassment in California based on military and veteran status.

Effective on the first day of 2014, AB 556, sponsored by Assemblymember Salas of Bakersfield, amends the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of military or veteran status or the perception of such status.

Lawmakers were motivated to change the law by the unacceptably high unemployment rates of California veterans.  The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) conducted a survey of their members and found that 24% of them were unemployed.   The Los Angeles Times reported that half of IAVA’s members believed that employers were not open to hiring veterans.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s September 2013 unemployment numbers, veterans who have served in the armed forces since September 11, 2001, have an unemployment rate of 10.1%, compared to a civilian unemployment rate of 6.8%.  Broken down by gender, the unemployment rates show that women veterans have a higher unemployment rate (11.6%) than male veterans (9.7%).  Female veterans also have a higher unemployment rate than female non-veterans (6.5%).

While a number of federal and state laws do specifically address veterans’ employment issues and leaves of absence (see upcoming Blog post on leaves for veterans and military families), having specific state-law employment discrimination and harassment protections for veterans can help in a number of ways.  First, the new law will raise awareness of the serious employment problems facing veterans as employers revisit their employment policies, procedures, postings, and training regarding discrimination and harassment.  Second, veterans who experience employment discrimination or harassment will have access to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the State agency charged with investigating their claims and filing court cases to enforce the law.  Third, adding additional protections to FEHA means that California employment lawyers will become more familiar with representing and advocating on behalf of veterans.

The new law provides protections to any member or veteran of the United States Armed Forces, United States Armed Forces Reserve, the United States National Guard, and the California National Guard.  The bill still permits employers to consider veteran status for purposes of veteran preferences in hiring, a practice encouraged by the Veterans Administration.

As we salute our veterans for their service, let’s also celebrate the great strides the Golden State is making towards full integration of our veterans as they return to our communities.


Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

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