America has a problem.
Its $9 billion fashion industry is riddled with workplace abuse and wage theft, issues that the nation’s current labor policies do not adequately address. Imagine sitting at a sewing machine from sun up to sun down every weekday, assembling hundreds of garments with no breaks, constantly fighting the urge to faint from heat exhaustion and inefficient ventilation all to be given a paycheck that is drastically lower than minimum wage. This is the reality for thousands of garment workers in the country.
In fact, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, factories across the nation forced garment workers to shift to start producing personal protection equipment despite the lack of safety regulations and health advisories. Essentials like gloves and hand sanitizer were often not provided. Many garment workers endured such abuse and, in turn, only earned five cents per completed mask. Those who did not work received no pay.
[During COVID-19 pandemic] some garment workers in California–one of the largest manufacturing hubs–were earning less than $3 per hour
American brands like Gap and Levi’s even canceled orders, preserving their bottom lines by stealing almost $15 billion in wages from garment workers–which have since been recovered with help from the #PayUp campaign. The dangerous working conditions also led to more tragic outcomes. It was reported by the Los Angeles Times that four workers at a Los Angeles-based brand died and another 300 were infected due to improper protective measures or a total lack thereof resulting in an operations shut down. Furthermore, prior to the recent passage of Senate Bill 62, some garment workers in California–one of the largest manufacturing hubs–were earning less than $3 per hour before, during and after COVID. The violations are endless.
The nation is in need of policies that prioritizes garment worker rights over big brand profits. Without protection, the lives of nearly 100,000 garment workers that the industry employs are at risk.
Petra, a garment worker from San Antonio, Texas detailed her experience in the industry, how many garment workers face continued injustices and how many don’t feel as though they have other options. “I came to the United States following the American dream… My first job I was discriminated against for being a woman, for my color, and for not speaking English… I accepted it because I didn’t know my rights… What mattered to me was to have my job so I could contribute economically to support my family,” she says.
“My first job I was discriminated against for being a woman, for my color, and for not speaking English” – Petra, Garment Worker
In thinking about how such injustice can be possible today, the pathway to progress might seem insurmountable. However, when individuals who deeply care advocate together, change happens.
Four workers at a Los Angeles-based brand died and another 300 were infected due to improper protective measures
On September 12, 2023, a group of 80 Remake ambassadors and partners–consisting of a diverse coalition of garment workers, their children, sustainable business owners and youth advocates–modeled just that by visiting Washington D.C. in support of a landmark piece of legislation called the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act.
“The FABRIC Act would enforce minimum wage standards, ending wage theft for the nearly 100,000 US garment workers,” says Emily Stochl. “Additionally, it introduces a multimillion dollar domestic manufacturing grant program, meant to revitalize Made in the USA apparel production.”
The FABRIC Act aims to end wage theft and the exploitation of garment workers on a federal level, while also establishing brand accountability and incentivizing the return of garment production in the U.S.
Stochl, the Director of Education & Community Engagement at Remake, played a key role in planning the organization’s first Advocacy Day at Capitol Hill. While the bill was introduced in May of 2022, it was reintroduced this year ahead of midterm elections to “secure additional sponsors.” The purpose of having representation during this time, she explained, was to not only help elected officials take note of the new policy, but also understand why their constituents want it passed. Alongside the bill’s 280+ fashion-related business endorsers, the group aimed to further the movement by meeting with 20 U.S. Senators to share industry facts, personal stories and worker testimonials.
“The FABRIC Act would enforce minimum wage standards, ending wage theft for the nearly 100,000 US garment workers” – Emily Stochl
“I think it’s important to remember that the people in those offices work for us and we need to continue to voice our concerns and give solutions. Speaking up is powerful and can make a difference,” says Sara Phillips, a Remake Florida Community Organizer. Advocacy Day was profoundly special for Phillips as her family, from 100 years ago, were garment workers who received a piece pay rate–or, payment on the basis of how many pieces a garment worker makes. She wanted to “be the voice that they did not have” by participating. Coupled with the fact that she used to work at Capitol Hill, Phillips expertly led the meeting with Senator Marco Rubio as the Florida State Lead to demonstrate why actions needed to be taken and the bill passed in order to secure garment worker protections.
Gen Zers and Millennials in particular are more likely to engage in activism to influence political action.
Conversely, a Remake New York ambassador and recent college graduate, Laiyonelth Hurtado, “was intimidated by the idea of speaking to our representatives.” It was his first time lobbying at the Capitol and he found himself scared of the idea of being in a space–like Congress–that is inaccessible to most people in America. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but made the trip because his belief that “garment workers deserve justice and living wages to thrive in life” and activism powers democracy was stronger than his fear.
According to Pew Research Center, in the U.S., younger generations expect the government to solve more problems than older generations do. As a result, Gen Zers and Millennials in particular are more likely to engage in activism to influence political action. A survey conducted in 2021 to examine generational engagement around climate change, for example, showed “32% of Gen Zers and 28% of Millennials have taken at least one of four actions (donating money, contacting an elected official, volunteering or attending a rally)” to push for policy that addresses a crisis.
Additionally, we are seeing more and more initiatives and organizations are becoming youth-led.
Remake in DC for Advocacy Day, Sept. 2023
Emily Henry–a Remake New Jersey ambassador–also fought through nerves on Advocacy Day. Joined by another Remake ambassador from New Jersey, Ylvia Asal, she was grounded by the amount of love and support around her, reminding herself that her voice “alongside Remake’s training” would make history. Asal felt the same way, initially afraid that her concerns would not be taken seriously or that her approach to advocacy would not be enough. The “sense of solidarity” exhibited at the Capitol helped her find the courage to speak to the staffers representing Senator Bob Menedez of New Jersey. “Seeing the legislators and policymakers attentively listening to our stories, concerns, and solutions,” she said, showed just how impactful her voice–and the voice of her community–is in creating change.
The group was composed of people with varying levels of experience in lobbying all unified by their shared goal of “ensuring that garment workers do have a voice and are [treated] as human” as Gabriella Gooden, a Remake Delaware ambassador and current college student, says.
Becca Coughlan, the Senior Manager of Advocacy for Remake, stresses the importance of connecting with lawmakers no matter your background with policy as well. She encouraged participation from an array of ambassadors for Advocacy Day stating, “both senators and house representatives take note when issues and bills are brought up to them by their own constituents.”
Currently, there are eight senators who have co-sponsored the bill: Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Cory Booker (NJ), Dianne Feinstien (CA), Alex Padilla (CA), Bernie Sanders (VT), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Tammy Duckworth (IL), and John Fetterman (PA). This is a feat that would not have happened without the collective action of the Remake community.
“I feel that in Texas there is no law to protect workers because in my experience Unions only work for the companies, they abuse and wear out human beings working for the companies in very poorly paid conditions. Many times workers earn the minimum without any protective benefits. We support and appreciate this effort…because this FABRIC Act will benefit all the workers in the world. The struggle is difficult but together we can do it,” said Petra.
By raising the standard for workplace protections and production, brands and legislation will lead the way to much-needed equity and America will have a much safer and stronger fashion industry. To help garner more support, Coughlan suggests taking the time to “research and engage apparel businesses and manufacturers in [your] home [state]” to understand “how the FABRIC Act will benefit them, and encourage them to both endorse the bill and reach out to lawmakers about its importance.”