Garment workers in Los Angeles, lawmakers cite the fight for fair wages

A worker sews Fashion Nova clothing at a clothing factory in downtown Los Angeles on April 1, 2019. The Federal Department of Labor found in the 2016-19 investigation that many Fashion Nova garments are sewn together by a workforce in the United States who illegally receive poorly paid wages. (AP / GDA via AP Images / The New York Times / Jessica Pons)

Monday through Saturday, Los Angeles textile workers come to run down factories or old warehouses to make clothes for some of the world’s largest fashion brands. They work in narrow and crowded rooms full of cockroaches, rats or rat droppings. Emergency exits are sometimes blocked, with some workers reporting being locked up on factory premises when inspectors visit, especially during COVID-19 lockdown orders.

Sofia Garcia Palomares, 53, works in similar conditions for a boutique that sells handmade clothing. “They don’t give us toilet paper or water and we have to eat in a dirty dining room,” said Palomares.

Despite working ten hours a day, many textile workers like Palomares have so far earned less than the minimum wage. Palomares stated that some days she would make $ 20 a day and another $ 40.

But a new California state law, Senate Act 62, the Garment Workers Protection Act, should bring wage consistency to Palomares and other workers, many of whom are Catholic.

The law goes to end piece pay, a practice where workers are paid by the number of pieces rather than the hourly wages. Piece-wage compensation can result in workers making as little as $ 5 an hour.

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill – the first of its kind in the nation – earlier this fall.

“SB 62 aimed to address one of the main problems workers face on a daily basis: wage theft. When workers are not properly paid, their families suffer, they suffer, “said Marissa Nuncio, director of Los Angeles-based Garment Worker Center NCR.

This law will be the first in the nation to allow “upstream liability,” where textile workers can access those at the top of the supply chain and hold them legally responsible for their actions, she said.

Before SB 62, the fashion brands had all the bargaining power. Many fashion companies subcontracted their work, making it difficult for textile workers to interact with the company that asked for the parts. Fashion brands tend to contract with the lowest bidder, creating “a race to the bottom,” Nuncio said.

Olivia, who asked not to use her last name, has been a textile worker for 16 years. Her daily tasks include cover stitching, operating multi-needle machines, ironing and packing. The new law means a lot to seamstresses like you.

“I can now pay a minimum wage like most Angelenos,” she said, adding that she hopes SB 62 will lead to a deeper understanding of how clothes are made.

“Every piece and clothing you see is made by people who need to eat and lead decent lives.” She said.

Workers’ ability to negotiate a fairer wage can also provide an opportunity to improve on degrading working conditions such as poor lighting, no running water or very limited toilet breaks. Many workers also have detailed verbal abuse from their supervisors.

Additionally, the fabric fibers are often covered in chemicals that make it easier to walk through a machine, but workers inhale those chemicals which can often lead to respiratory problems, Nuncio said.

When asked what gave her the courage to stand up for SB 62, Palomares quoted her Catholic faith.

“When we fought for it, I asked God to reach the governor’s heart to sign the law,” she said.

This law is also designed to help women of color and immigrants who are often exploited in the clothing industry for wage theft.

SB 62 lead author, State Sen. María Elena Durazo, and lead co-author of the bill, MP Lorena Gonzalez, said their Catholic faith inspired them to fight for labor and union justice.

Gonzalez held meetings with the textile workers and visited the Garment Worker Center. She met with lawyers and the press, and communicated with the governor’s office to ensure the passage of this law.

“She is especially motivated when it comes to ensuring that others are treated less, discriminated against and given less – women who have no means to buy diapers for their babies, people who have no access to medical care, former inmates and especially immigrants and the working poor, “Durazo said of Gonzalez.

Gonzalez “tries to practice our beliefs and the issue of justice,” said Durazo.

Other Catholic union leaders said they admire the work of Durazo and Gonzalez – especially since so many Americans don’t know where their clothes are made and think sweatshops are just a problem overseas.

“It’s moving to have a campaign by women of color for women of color,” said Nuncio of the Garment Worker Center.

“There is no question that she [the authors of SB 62] are absolute advocates of workers’ rights, ”she said. “You put the demands of the workers at the center of this campaign. It was great to know that we were on the same side and fighting the same way. “

Victor Narro of the UCLA Labor Center said Gonzalez “takes solidarity to heart”.

“There are no unskilled workers for Lorena,” he said.

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