Made in LA: Backyard Sweatshops

In Los Angeles, sweatshops are no longer an abstraction of the distant third world. With an unnoticed presence, the cut-and-sew apparel industry is Los Angeles’ second largest industry, employing over 46,000 individuals. Woven into the fabric of the city, workers of this underground economy are inextricably tied to the undocumented community, making the industry notorious for wage theft, worker intimidation, and poor health and safety conditions.

By Aditi Mayer

A drive through Downtown LA provides insight to the city’s countless permutations: from the former bohemian playground turned gentrification emblem Arts District to the outdoors bazaars and bodegas of the Fashion District. Crossing the bridge over the LA River is every real estate developer’s dream location: the Arts District. The cafe-lined streets, luxury loft developments, and art galleries are all blurred between stretches of Skid Row and the Financial District. A few blocks into South Los Angeles Street and the Fashion District comes into full view; the shift between the Arts District and Fashion District is quick but obvious.

Urban grunge, with weathered brick and open windows, is no longer a curated aesthetic. A garage door is no longer a site for public consumption, Instagram-worthy murals cease to exist, and any white negative space showing capsule collections is replaced with crowded clothing displays fronting each of the primary colors. Saturated colors compete for your attention amidst redolent food stands as Cumbia playlists echo from each store. Headless porcelain mannequins are replaced by stained ones, some with missing noses and chipped eyes. Posters of artisans of the third-world mounted alongside $80 dollar fair trade t-shirts are replaced by stock images of models billowing on tarp alongside $5 wholesale t-shirts.

Here, the garment industry hums as the background noise of the city.

Here, garment workers toil during 12 hour days, working hastily for a piece rate of 3¢ per garment in the hopes of reaching a $5 hourly wage.

Here, employers intimidate workers by telling them that the labor commission, who are expected to support workers with claims against their employers, works with America’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Here, sweatshops are no longer an abstraction of the distant third world.

With an unnoticed presence, the cut-and-sew apparel industry is Los Angeles’ second largest industry, employing over 46,000 individuals. Woven into the fabric of the city, workers of this underground economy are inextricably tied to the undocumented community, making the industry notorious for wage theft, worker intimidation, and poor health and safety conditions.

On the second floor of an industrial office space, situated between Santee Street and South Los Angeles Street, lost and hesitant workers tread a long stretch of a cold, gray hallway, dotted with signs pointing to “Centro De Trabajadores De Costura: Garment Workers Center.” When one turns the corner, an open door frames a headless mannequin wearing a cardigan from one of the center’s sewing workshops.

Just inside, a bright red wall showcases a mural of workers in protest; papers are taped throughout the walls: ‘derechos no se respetan,’ ‘basta ya,’ ‘no hoy breaks,’ and ‘amenazas falsas de migra.’ Adjacent to this wall are artifacts of protests past, with banners reading, “International Workers Solidarity: No Borders,” and quilted signs saying “Justice for Garment Workers.”

On this Saturday morning, Organizing Director Mar Martinez prepares the space for the day’s meeting. She’s straightening, answering calls, and setting up tables for the coming visitors. On her agenda is an early Thanksgiving potluck followed by making posters, a protest chants review, then a talk-through of the route for the center’s upcoming ‘Anti-Sweatshop Saturday’ march — the first action of its kind to call out thirteen local retailers with high indexes of exploitative labor tactics.

The Department of Labor (DOL) conducted an investigation into factories in Los Angeles and found that 85% of factories had wage violations. In their investigation, the thirteen retailers in question produced their clothes in factories that violated basic labor laws. Contractors had received only 73% of what they need to pay workers the minimum wage. The result was retailers had their garments made for cheap, increasing their profits while workers received sub-minimum wages.

In their wage justice work, the Garment Worker Center uncovered many of the same things, including a high frequency of wage theft in factories producing clothing for Forever 21, Ross Stores, TJ Maxx, Charlotte Russe, Windsor, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Burlington, Dillards, Beals, A’gaci, Fashion Nova, and Urban Outfitters. In many of these cases, the big retailers often evade accountability by passing blame down the supply chain.

As Mar rearranges items to make room for the potluck, she picks up two framed images from Bangladesh during the 2013 Rana Plaza Factory Collapse. In this collapse, Rana Plaza became the country’s worst industrial disaster, and the face of modern global labor exploitation due to the companies that were using the plaza’s poorly run and unmonitored factories for production: Primark, The Children’s Place, and Walmart.

The aerial image of the collapse displays the building’s concrete spillover, as if an earthquake had undertaken one sole building. In this one collapse more than 1,100 garment workers were killed. A crowd of hundreds formed around the wreckage, many holding pictures of loved ones. Close-up images show the faces and limbs of victims entwined between the rubble and fabric — ash-laden faces of men, women, and children. One image shows a couple in embrace, bodies barely discernible in gray ash — mirroring the maidens of Pompeii.

The collapse of Rana Plaza was not an unpredictable disaster. Structural cracks were identified the day before the building’s collapse, and all office buildings housed on the building’s bottom floors had been evacuated. However, the factory workers on the remaining nine floors were forced by upper management to complete their quotas. Many were threatened with losing their jobs if they were noncompliant. They were forced to continue as usual and at 9 am, one hour into the work day, the nine-story commercial building collapsed.

That collapse occurred one year before Mar began working at the center in LA. The images of Rana Plaza remind her of a trip she took to Bangladesh and Nicaragua to speak with garment workers as a member of United Students Against Sweatshops. She was then a student at Brown University.

“The presence of sewing machines were an integral part of my upbringing, but didn’t translate to organizing until I was a student at Brown University. There [were] not as many brown folks as there [were] white folks, so when I wanted to get involved in organizing I immediately noticed that the folks that were in solidarity with people who looked like me, like Latinos, were the dinner service workers, the librarians, the janitorial staff.”

“Growing up, I remember always seeing my mom with injuries on her fingers, or stories of needles flying into people’s eyes, or not taking bathroom or water breaks, to rushing from lunch back to the machine to make more pieces. My mom was bringing garments home to sew, and we were helping her with it — big labels like Forever 21. It was normal for me to watch my mom work 12 hours in the day, sometimes more into the night, and it finally clicked for me that what my mom had experienced was sweatshop labor.”

This community ultimately led her to join the Brown Student Labor Alliance and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) — her participation refined her activism in labor work both domestically and abroad. Through USAS, she became involved with anti-sweatshop work internationally.

“While I was doing these trips, I was calling back home talking to my mom, telling her was like ‘Yeah, it’s like that here too.’

“Growing up, I remember always seeing my mom with injuries on her fingers, or stories of needles flying into people’s eyes, or not taking bathroom or water breaks, to rushing from lunch back to the machine to make more pieces. My mom was bringing garments home to sew, and we were helping her with it — big labels like Forever 21. It was normal for me to watch my mom work 12 hours in the day, sometimes more into the night, and it finally clicked for me that what my mom had experienced was sweatshop labor.”

It isn’t just the children of garment workers who grow used to these unacceptable conditions, but the workers themselves. Although all workers are entitled to the minimum wage, LA factories dodge giving proper wages by utilizing the piece rate system. This system allows for sub-minimum pay, compensating workers per each piece they produce, rather than the hours that they work. When the minimum wage was $6 an hour, the piece rate system served as a way to incentivize workers to reach higher production quotas. However, the piece rate has not increased within the last 40 years, with workers being paid only 2 to 3 cents per piece.

With the average garment worker now making $5 an hour, the current $10.50 minimum wage is far from met, and the eventual $15 an hour minimum wage, which will be reached in 2022, will exacerbate workers’ ability to navigate Los Angeles’ increasing cost of living.

“The biggest misconception garment workers often have is that they don’t have a right to the minimum wage,” says Mar.

In addition to the piece rate, the price that retailers are paying manufacturers have also remained stagnant, with most retailers paying only a percentage of the price needed for manufacturers to provide fair wages to workers.

These cycles were the catalyst in convincing workers to put pressure on retailers who produce in Los Angeles, leading to the center’s upcoming Anti-Sweatshop Saturday campaign.

“The biggest misconception garment workers often have is that they don’t have a right to the minimum wage,” says Mar.

“Employers often tell them that the labor commission is sharing information with ICE. The employers will say some nasty stuff; they’ll say that I saw you at labor commission, trick them into saying that they went to labor commission, say they have cameras there, or that the deputy sent them information, which are lies — they would never do that, and if they did, it would be a huge violation.”

Immigration documentation status has a lot to do with fear in the community. With most of the workforce being made up of illegal or indeterminate status immigrants from Mexico and Central America, fear of retaliation from employers, being fired, or deportation are all reasons workers avoid speaking up.

Maria*, one of the garment workers involved at the center, has been working in the Los Angeles garment industry for over 20 years; the piece rate hasn’t changed. Early in her years in the factory, she discovered the extent of her co-workers’s fear when the labor commission came to her factory to review conditions, and nearly all workers ran out of the building thinking it was immigration.

“They can’t really organize because it’s hard when a lot of the garment workers have fear of losing their jobs. There’s only a few of us who have the courage to do so and participate in these things, and have the mentality to find another job if something happens.”

Six years ago, Maria began working at a factory where she would work from 8 am to 9 pm, and was never paid overtime. She, along with four co-workers, learned about the garment workers center two years ago, and have since been fighting a case for their years of uncompensated labor. Collectively, Maria and her co-workers are owed over $700,000 in unpaid wages.

“Hopefully they can take us seriously and we win the case,” she says, “because we can’t afford to live on these wages. They don’t take us workers seriously; they look at us like we have no power. But now that we have Mar, who is educated, we are taken more seriously.”

The key components for fighting cases of wage theft comes down to proof and proper documentation of one’s hours, but most workers only learn to document their hours and take pictures of their paychecks after it’s too late.

One member of the center made it her mission to uncover the realities of wage theft with concrete evidence. Jen* was brought to the United States in May of 2012 as an unsuspecting victim of labor trafficking from Indonesia. Her employer had promised her a job as a nanny that would include her own room and $1,000 monthly salary, which she wanted to send back to her family in Indonesia.

When Jen arrived in Orange County, she found she had to work nonstop. “In Indonesia, I had just worked with a couple, cleaning house, making breakfast, and in the night after dinner I would be done. When I was brought here with my tourist visa with my employer, who had promised me a worker visa, I had to work on all the things: taking care of the kids, clean up the office, cooking, working on the front yard, everything.” She never got the promised room, was worked to the point of exhaustion, and was paid only $200 a month, a measly fee that she couldn’t send back home. After she asked to be taken to the Indonesian embassy, her employer took away her passport and birth certificate.

Three months in, after receiving some payment, Jen knew she had to escape. “I didn’t know what to do, but if something happened to me, I wouldn’t be able to take care of my family. So I just left the house, and walked until I reached a Bloomingdale’s where there was a public phone.”

Jen only had one person’s phone number: Lupe’s.

Before she was brought to her employers’ home, there was a nanny named Lupe she had replaced. It was Lupe that would have been her roommate, if her employer provided the room they promised her. She called Lupe, who only spoke Spanish, and managed to get a ride to her apartment.

“Lupe was very scared. She told me to go back to my boss, and I said I couldn’t go back. I just kept saying help me. I stayed with her for five days until she sent her brother Jose to take me to LA where he lived, far away from her.”

Jen arrived in LA on a Saturday, and found a job on Monday in the garment district — two blocks away from Jose’s home.

“Jose asked me what he could do to help. I didn’t want to call the police because I thought I would go to jail for doing something criminal. I didn’t know my rights. I said I have sewing skills and he said there is a garment district here.”

Jen worked in that company for two years, working at a wage of $125 a week.

“I didn’t come with anything, so I thought this was great money. So I kept working and working from Monday to Sunday. I didn’t know my rights, or how much I was supposed to get, until I learned a little bit of Spanish and a friend told me she’s underpaying me. Then I got a different job.”

After her second employer ceased to pay her for two weeks, Jen didn’t know what to do. It was then that she saw Mar one day after work, handing out fliers on the streets. “She told me she could help with wage theft, but I didn’t believe her. A few days later, I saw her again, and decided to go to the center.”

Since then, Jen has become one of the most outspoken activists of the Garment Workers Center. A few months ago, she decided to take matters into her own hands to uncover the various ways companies exploit labor in the industry.

For the past three months, Jen has begun switching factory sites every few weeks, ending her time at a factory once she feels she has enough data on a company’s labor practices.

In this process, she covertly takes cellphone images and documents all elements of her experience: how much she is paid, through what method, which retailers the factory is producing for, and what the other workers are saying about their experience. So far, she’s on her third employer: a factory producing for Ross, which is one of the biggest labor offenders in the Los Angeles retail sphere.

“When I saw the shipments of the factory were going to Ross, I said bingo,” Jen says.

Her previous employers created merchandise for Nordstrom and Fashion Nova.

The factory behind fast-fashion giant Fashion Nova committed notorious levels of wage theft, pretending to pay $10 an hour by making it look as if Jen had worked only twenty hours a week, since Jen was only making $200 a week according to piece rate. In reality, she had worked forty hours. Jen intends to continue working at various companies until she compiles at least ten different sites, each with ample amounts of evidence. Fears of deportation are not pertinent for Jen, as she is in the process of receiving a human trafficking visa.

“I learned from my past mistakes,” Jen says. “No proof, no data is so embarrassing because I don’t speak English stable. I don’t get to the point. I learned from the past time to have the papers. When I get my Green Card I can go the other states; kicking more, you know? I’m really mad with the system — who made piece rate legal? Who’s government? They have to speak with me and argue. Why do you make it legal, why doesn’t it rise up?”

The informal economy of the garment industry allows her to find work easily, because over the years, she’s garnered all the skills needed.

“In my last company, I asked people what they’re going to do. I say let’s go fight. They say we don’t have documentation, Jen, don’t give me dreams like that. But it’s hard — like the first time I met Mar, I didn’t trust her. For me, it’s easy to get new work; if I come to a building, I’ll get the job because I have skills. The contractors aren’t saying ‘We love you, we’re going to keep you forever.’ They don’t even ask my name for the first week!”

The anonymity of workers in the industry is what the Garment Workers Center seeks to address through their weekly meetings, which have fostered a strong family dynamic. Selena, the Queen of Tejano music, plays in the background. The center’s folding tables are filled with potluck items as members trickle in. Children take plates of food to the back corner of the center, where a UCLA program provides free tutoring services.

After the potluck, Mar begins to map out the plan of the action, while Zacil Pech, another Garment Worker Center organizer, passes out protest chants. She and Mar began working at the center at the same time three years back, and have led the new wave of leadership that focuses on grassroots empowerment. She leads the chants with vigor and familiarity, pointing to a history in labor organizing that began in 2010 as a recent high school graduate.

As an undocumented immigrant, she found her calling as an organizer for immigrant youth and their fight for the California Dream Act and DACA.

“Knowledge is power and I can definitely attest that this is true for me, because prior to me becoming involved in different community organizations I used to think ignorance is bliss, and it is. But we can’t be dormant. Both of my parents are low-wage workers. My mom is a housekeeper and my dad is a factory worker. The similarities are undeniable between domestic workers, factory workers, and garment workers — the abuse, the exploitation is right up the same alley. That is how I knew I wanted to work in labor: seeing my parents, hearing about all the fucked up stuff they had to go through.”

With the role of Health and Safety organizer, Zacil seeks to address issues of health and safety not only in terms of labor, but holistically.

“We recognize that workers are not only workers, but parents, people with different needs. There’s a lot of normalization of health and safety violations. People will say, well in what places are you not going to find roaches? Which places are going to provide you water?’ A lot of the times, people don’t know about their rights. And it ties with socioeconomic status, or documentation people may or may not have. All of things that play into those fears, and employers capitalizing off that — not only financially, but also speaking out.”

One of Zacil’s strengths is her understanding of gentrification’s ties to the garment industry. As a lifelong Boyle Heights resident, she is one of the founders of Defend Boyle Heights, an anti-gentrification collective which, according to their website, “acts through direct actions targeted at institutions and individuals aligned with the capitalist, pro-gentrification status quo.”

The two-year-old collective has gained a well-known reputation for radical activity taking aim at what they consider the driving force of displacement: art galleries, which are considered one the first stages of gentrification.

“Gentrification is hitting home a lot — not only in my neighborhood, but also garment workers who are being displaced from their homes, but also garment factories. Downtown LA used to be filled with garment factories left and right, wherever you went, and it was also a way for garment workers center to take income home, although on the low end of the fence, but still some income they could take back home. But now because of gentrification, people are being pushed out of their homes, and work, and in my own neighborhood we are all seeing these changes.”

The correlation between Zacil’s anti-gentrification work and garment labor organizing intersect quite often, with many of the developers pushing out factories in Downtown Los Angeles being the same developers in Boyle Heights. Another nuance she has come to find is the ways in which conscious consumerism and gentrification are often linked through the rise of high-end boutiques that house fair-trade luxury items, yet exist in gentrified quarters that are actively contributing to the displacement of local communities.

“If we really want to start making changes and talking about resistance and social justice, it doesn’t start with these high-end boutiques — it starts with people just becoming aware and giving space for community members and directly affected folks.”

One example is Apolis Common Gallery, housed on 3rd street in the Art’s District. Here, every visit seems to introduce a new neighboring luxury loft construction site. Artisan coffee shops line the streets. Housing an industrial chic interior, the minimalist setup has a limited inventory of items that seems to market a modern hipster starter pack: from leather key chains, jute market bags (100% natural environmentally friendly fiber indigenous to Bangladesh), “nomad” journals, artisan crafted table candles, to headless porcelain mannequins modeling organic cotton t-shirts with ‘Global Citizen’ written across them, styled with flannel button downs and wool blazers. In this curated display, items are available only in three colors: black, blue, and tan — echoing many of the shop’s neighboring establishments: Blacktop Coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Tanner Goods Los Angeles.

“All of these high-end boutiques that are popping up are also contributing to the gentrification and displacement of other folks,” she says. “It’s complicated to say the least, but if we really want to start making changes and talking about resistance and social justice, it doesn’t start with these high-end boutiques — it starts with people just becoming aware and giving space for community members and directly affected folks like garment workers, those that have been in this industry for years, and are also a part of marginalized, undeserved communities. That’s where it starts. That’s dialogue that we need to have among ourselves and other ethical labor producers — it’s not necessarily about tooting that horn and feeding your own ego, but using your platform, whatever that platform is, to really elevate the voices that have been in the struggle for the longest.”

This is where the Garment Workers Center and decent employers are trying to collaborate. Although the center commends those trying to improve industry, its members are intent on creating space for workers to speak on what they want. Instead of taking a top-down model, the center’s organizers push all collaborators to think about bottom-up models that center the voices of the workers.

Many of the complexities of Los Angeles’ landscape have fed into the multi-pronged approach the Garment Workers Center has taken on. There is not one solution, but rather a combination of promoting conscious consumerism, putting the pressure on retailers to become accountable for the abuse they perpetuate onto the garment workers, and worker organizing.

On the morning of November 25th, the day after Black Friday, a crowd of nearly eighty protesters gather in front of the Garment Workers Center for Anti-Sweatshop Saturday. A dozen media channels are on site to cover the action — the largest turnout the center has seen, with the majority being English-language outlets, a demographic the center has been trying to reach.

The bullhorn is placed in the hands of workers, who begin the action by reading the chants off of papers, slowly increasing in volume and confidence as they march through South Los Angeles street.

The labor of many Saturday mornings comes together in many signs, messages reading ‘OPPRESSION AND EXPLOITATION IS NOT A GOOD BARGAIN,’ ‘EVERY WORKER IS A WORKING MOTHER,’ to ‘SOMOS HUMANOS NO ROBOTS!’

The scene brings the mural of workers in protest housed in the Garment Workers Center to life, echoing YA BASTA, YA BASTA, which means “it’s enough,” throughout the streets.

The scene brings the mural of workers in protest housed in the Garment Workers Center to life, echoing YA BASTA, YA BASTA, which means “it’s enough,” throughout the streets.

“Look at this irony!” yells Zacil.

The crowd continues onto the Bloc, a recently developed shopping plaza in downtown Los Angeles. There’s a new set of billboards promoting consumerism with holistic wellbeing: “You want to be meaningful, soulful, truthful, spiritual, and mindful? The BLOC: #thelinestartshere,” one reads. “You know you want it: “Artisanally distressed cellphones. #upgraded,” another reads. Multiple easels with “Black Friday starts NOW” boards line the plaza.

The final location of the action is Fig at 7th, a shopping center aimed toward “urban sophisticates who make their homes here”. The plaza houses many of the fast fashion outlets that are known for sweatshop labor, from Zara, H&M, to Nordstrom. With an open-air, circular display, the multiple level shopping center is ideal to be heard and seen.

A group of protesters run in front of the Zara and H&M storefront to hold out a banner against the railing. ANTI-SWEATSHOP SATURDAY appears in red letters, sprawled in a way to foreground the SHOP BLACK FRIDAY NOW ads of retailers.

“This is a really important industry to the history of the United States,” she says. “It was the first industry that was mechanized, where assembly lines were made, the industry that created the middle class. The fashion industry is really important to the US economic history. But we’ve let it become this shameful thing.”

Customers coming out of the retailers either walk away with a fast pace, or stop to acknowledge the crowds in confusion. Workers resort to giving personal testimonies of their experience — accounts that simplify their narratives to 2-3 minute windows, yet point to the unifying experiences of countless workers: humiliation, intimidation, and exploitation.

As the action comes to a close, Mar completes the last few media interviews. She’s keen to remind retailers that cutting and running their factories abroad is not the answer.

“This is a really important industry to the history of the United States,” she says. “It was the first industry that was mechanized, where assembly lines were made, the industry that created the middle class. The fashion industry is really important to the US economic history. But we’ve let it become this shameful thing. We should take pride in the fact that we have garment workers in the US — that we still have this industry here, and we can create a model that is different.”

*Names have been changed for publication.

 

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Aditi Mayer is the founder of InSight Magazine. As a Literary Journalism and International Studies double major, she is passionate about the intersections of media and social action. Beyond working on InSight Magazine, she can be found on her sustainable fashion blog or serving as a board member of the Asian American Journalist Association. She is also a Student Ambassador for the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation.

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