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Los Angeles factories, wage theft, and why SB 1399 is needed

Updated: Jun 29

Sewing via Flickr user Roger Nelson, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As information on the source of our clothing becomes more accessible, many Americans look to buy local and reduce their footprint; however, a “Made in USA” tag doesn’t necessarily mean the product is sustainable or that the workers who made the item have equitable working conditions. The largest population of garment workers in the United States is in California, where many workers experience wage theft and health and safety hazards.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division randomly inspected 77 garment shops in the Los Angeles area between 2015 and 2016, and found wage violations at 85% of them. Available data makes it clear that AB 633, which was enacted in 1999 to provide garment manufacturers with a minimum wage, is ineffective. Manufacturers have avoided compliance with AB 633 by contracting around it; subsequently, many garment workers are paid per item they complete, which ends up averaging at $5.15 an hour. At some clothing factories, such as Fashion Nova’s, workers can make as little as $2.77 an hour. In 2016, another bill, AB 1513, was introduced but only required that piece-rate workers received paid rest time.

Unfortunately, wage theft is only part of the problem. The Garment Worker Center, UCLA Labor Center, and UCLA Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Program published a report in 2016 that revealed some of the frightening health and safety conditions that plague many Los Angeles factories. The report surveyed 307 workers in the greater Los Angeles area between June and December of 2015, 72 percent of which indicated their factories were brimming with dust. 60 percent of respondents reported poor workplace ventilation that made it difficult to breathe, 42 percent had seen rats and mice in their workplace, 42 percent reported that exits and doors were regularly blocked, and 82 percent reported that they had never received any health or safety training.

The state of garment manufacturing particularly exploits immigrants, who make up 71% of Los Angeles’ “cut-and-sew” labor force. Specifically, factory owners are more likely to exploit undocumented workers because they fear the possibility of deportation. In 2008, a survey revealed that undocumented workers, specifically women, are more likely to be victimized by wage and overtime violations. 38 percent of undocumented workers and 47 percent of undocumented women workers reported minimum wage violations, whereas 26 percent of documented immigrant workers reported the same. Undocumented workers reported overtime violations at a rate 18 percent higher than documented immigrant workers.

Luckily, the substantial wage theft in Los Angeles factories has gained the attention of advocates and politicians alike. A bill just passed the California Senate on June 25, and will be heard by the Assembly Appropriations Committee this week. The Garment Worker Protection Act (SB 1399) was first introduced in response to brands cancelling orders that had already been fulfilled without paying garment workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. SB 1399 would institute a minimum wage for garment workers and would only allow piece-rate payments in the form of bonuses. Some claim the Los Angeles wage theft issues are the result of a few bigger retailers’ actions and worry that, if passed, SB 1399 would destroy the last of Los Angeles garment factories, which have consistently closed over time in response to cheaper labor overseas. However, this argument inevitably insinuates the intent to pay workers less than a living wage and foster an unhealthy work environment.

The bill has many supporters, including Fashion Nova, who has surprisingly supported SB 1399 after being cited most frequently by federal investigators during an investigation into garment factories, due to the brand’s extremely low wages. The brand has reformed its contracting practices and agreed to audit their contractors and subcontractors to ensure their workers are paid the California minimum wage - $15 an hour.

While Fashion Nova’s recent changes, and the passage of SB 1399 through the California Senate, are positive, it is yet to be seen how helpful SB 1399 will be for immigrants in practice. While it is a step in the right direction, there is still no guarantee that this bill will create a safe method for undocumented immigrants, or immigrants of any status, to come forward and demand ethical wages without retaliation. The bill also fails to directly remedy health and safety hazards and depends on paid overtime to do the trick.

Regardless of the flaws in SB 1399, it is still a critically important step towards garment worker justice. If you live in California (or even if you don’t!), be sure to reach out to your legislators and voice your opinion. You can also sign the petition to show your support for SB 1399.