On February 21, 2020, Senator Maria Elena Durazo, of California’s Senate district 24, introduced SB 1399 into California State Senate. The bill, drafted in collaboration with Bet Tzedek, a legal nonprofit working on labor issues, and the L.A Garment Worker Center, a worker based nonprofit, would hold manufacturers and brands liable for the working conditions of California’s garment workers, who are currently exploited under a tangled indirect sourcing model — a system designed to reduce transparency within the garment value chain. Because manufacturers are looking to make the largest profit margins out of being the middlemen between brands and garment factories, they subcontract to the cheapest possible labor they can find. More often than not, this includes undocumented women who are not familiar with the legal system in the US, or with the labor standards, and consequentially the most financially vulnerable. And because brands and retailers do not keep track of where their inventory is being subcontracted, they have effectively absolved themselves of all liability and legal responsibility.
This bill, specifically aimed at prohibiting these human rights abuses that underscore the growing LA sweatshop industry, was set to be voted upon on August 25. However, in an unexpected turn, SB1399 was never called to the Assembly vote. This was in part due to its low priority status and the logistical challenges of the 2020 California 2020 legislative session — the bill ended up literally running out the clock. California lawmakers have postponed the vote of this bill until the 2021 legislative year. This was a surprising silence from a supposedly progressive state, begging the question: Why does the issue of labor abuse in LA’s garment manufacturing industry not appear to be a priority for the California State legislature?
Remake’s founder and CEO, Ayesha Barenblat, had this to share after hearing that the bill failed to get called to a vote:
“The thing is, we have so much here in California. We’ve got farms, we’ve got textile mills, we’ve got the largest rates of cut and sew factories, and so, there’s so many ways that CA could be the sustainable fashion capital, and yet when we look at fashion’s most essential worker which is upwards of 45,000 women, we know that on Monday yet again, we’ve failed these women. And they continue to work in hazardous conditions, rock bottom wages, despite being in a pandemic.”
Senator Durazo, and others who supported this legislation could not be more frustrated with California at this point. In a statement to the LA Times, Senator Durazo said: “I’m disheartened that SB1399 did not prevail in the final hours of the legislative session. 2020 has not been the best year. As we regroup to plan for the upcoming legislative session, our commitment to garment workers will continue to be a priority, because every day wage theft continues to cheat workers out of their pay and while workers continue to be paid by the piece, they continue to earn on average five dollars an hour.”
The SB1399 Bill & Why It Matters
The current labor codes of the State of California, in reference to the garment manufacturing industry, rely heavily on 1999 legislation: Assembly Bill 633, which among other things establishes that only manufacturers are legally accountable for incidences of wage theft. For the past two decades, the laws governing labor codes and conditions in the garment manufacturing sector have remained relatively stagnant, despite the sector’s adaptation to continue profit maximization at the expense of garment workers.
The goal of SB1399 (also known as the Garment Worker Protection Act) is to tighten the language of AB 633, and thereby make brands and retailers directly liable for garment workers. Because they face no threat of being held to legal penalization or liabilities, brands, as the bill states: “have no incentive to ensure safe conditions or the proper minimum wage and overtime payments for the workers producing their garments.” By implementing the following steps, SB1399 would ensure California garment workers ethical working conditions.
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We’re heartbroken that #SB1399 did not make it out of the CA Assembly last night. It was not called for a vote and the clock ran out. The legislative session has ended. Workers watched the floor session for 3 long days waiting to see the bill they fought so hard on be voted upon. They believed their testimonies of earning as little as 3 cents a face mask, as little as $6/hour wages, amidst life threatening circumstances were enough for #CALeg leaders to understand how urgent this bill was. Over 55 fashion businesses in support hoped for the level playing field SB 1399 ensured. We didn’t get our message through to our elected leaders, however. At midnight when it was over, workers told us – WE WILL KEEP FIGHTING! WE WILL BRING OUR BILL BACK NEXT YEAR AND WE WILL WIN. You don’t stop fighting for justice when you lose a campaign, you just fight harder. And we will. Adelante! Siempre!
Step 1: Brand Guarantors: The specific loophole of the AB 633 legislation that retailers take advantage of is subcontracting. By indirectly sourcing their product to multiple factories, brands argue that they are technically not deemed what AB 633 defines to be “manufacturers.” Rather, they claim to be strictly retailers — a highly semantic argument — which has been the primary defense of retailers like Ross, which claimed in a 2018 statement: “Ross does not own or operate manufacturing operations in Los Angeles or elsewhere. The claims made by the Garment Worker Center are between the manufacturers’ subcontractors and their workers, not Ross employees; we have no control over what our vendors and manufacturers pay their workers.”
Under SB1399, the Brand guarantor, would be liable for workplace issues and worker compensation — amending the Labor Code to expand accountability for working conditions, beyond just manufacturers. This cuts through layers of subcontracting that retailers have been hiding behind in an attempt to avoid liability, so brands and retailers would be forced to be responsible for their entire value chain.
Step 2: Garment Manufacturers Special Account: The amended text of this bill refers to the Garment Worker Fund outlined in AB 633. Under this system, a certain percentage of manufacturers’ annual registration fees would be used to pay garment workers in the event of factory shutdowns, bankruptcy scenarios, or if manufacturers renege on their financial obligations. However, as the authors of SB1399 point out, the cost of manufacturer registration and annual fees (accounting for inflation) have been stagnant since 1999, while minimum wage has risen steadily. What this translates to is an insufficient fund that would not even begin to cover workers’ wages. SB1399 seeks to “restore the original intent through re-establishing a Garment Manufacturers Special Account” — essentially ensuring that the fund shall be proportional to cover the costs of workers’ regular hourly wage rate.
Step 3: Deconstruct the Piece Pay-Rate System: In addition to absolving themselves of any liability from factory workers, brands and retailers have also implemented a piece pay rate, compensating garment workers by the pieces produced rather than by the hour. While in theory compensation proportional to productivity might sound fair, in actuality it inevitably leads to payments below legal minimum wage standards. Under the current system, garment workers are being paid 33% less than they should be. Moreover, since wages are tied to pieces produced by each individual worker, SB1399 states: “garment workers are forced to constantly work as quickly as possible to complete as many items as possible in a workday”.
SB1399 seeks to restore the payment model of the California garment manufacturing sector to the standard hourly wage rate, and end the piece pay rate that currently dominates the garment manufacturing industry. Predicating wages upon unreal, and often physically impossible levels of productivity justifies inhumane working conditions, and allows for payment of unlivable wage. Ayesha Barenblat, the founder and CEO of Remake states,
“[With piece rate,] you’re really treating workers as a cost center, rather than an asset. You’re not investing in this workforce.”
Yeni is one of these workers suffering under the piece pay rate system.
An immigrant from Indonesia, Yeni spoke to Remake for their documentary: Made in America. She says that although she comes from a long line of tailors and loves to make clothes, “The factory, they don’t have lamps, they don’t have tissue in the bathroom, nothing. Just doing work as fast as you can. Every week she pay me $125.” $125 a week, assuming a 40 hour work week comes out to $3.125/hour. Compared to the minimum wage/hourly rates in LA at $12/hour, Yeni was being payed nearly 33% less than what she was owed. And that’s being generous. Most garment workers like Yeni work overtime regularly. According the GWC report, Dirty Threads, in collaboration with UCLA: “Workers who operate sewing machines perform precise and repetitious tasks, frequently for 10-12 hours a day, and for six days a week…Apparel workers often work for piece rates, which pay per unit produced and can pressure them to work at potentially hazardous speeds.” But wage theft was just the start of Yeni’s grievances. “At the factory, they were paying me a different price than the other workers, because I cannot communicate with the other workers. So the lady was cheating me a long time.”
“I don’t know my rights…I have no power” – Yeni
Yeni is not alone. Remake estimates that the number of immigrant women in LA’s garment manufacturing sector nears upwards of 50,000.
And with LA based fast fashion brands like Forever21, TJ Maxx, Ross, and FashionNova subcontracting domestically from LA manufacturers to keep costs low, a majority of the United States’ garment manufacturing industry is centered in Los Angeles. LA’s Garment Worker Center, reported that 82% of 307 garment workers surveyed said that they had never received any safety training. 60% reported excessive heat levels and lack of adequate ventilation in their factories. 42% reported regular occurrences of vermin and pests on site. And that is just in respect to factory conditions. GWC reports further state that:
“Los Angeles’ vast immigrant workforce supplies the needed low-wage labor that allows trendy fast fashion to thrive. Most garment workers make less than minimum wage and work on average 60 hours per week to make ends meet.”
And among these factories (essentially “unlicensed sweatshops”), the GWC found that workers are employed “to produce quick apparel for major retail brands like Forever 21, Ross, Wet Seal, Papaya, and Charlotte Russe,” — stores that supply clothes to a significant portion of the US population, with inventory turnover rates somewhere around two times a week.
It is clear that the garment manufacturing industry in California is plagued with labor rights transgressions. In 2017, the Department of Labor found that 85% of LA factories were in violation of basic labor standards, from infrastructure issues to subminimum wages. 2015 California Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated up to 71% of the workforce were comprised of foreign workers, mostly women, and the number of undocumented workers among those is staggeringly high. Going as far back to 1996, “the Department of Labor reported that it believed that up to 50 percent of the workers in California sweatshops were undocumented immigrants” — undocumented immigrants who have no context to the US legal system and so cannot pursue legal recourse or are intimidated into silence due to their immigration status. Undocumented immigrants who have NO bargaining power.
Clearly there is a problem: Ethical labor standards are not being implemented in the garment manufacturing industry, resulting in the ABUSE of a significant portion of the California labor force. So is California passing laws to protect these abused workers?
SB1399 was passed by the CA state senate, making its way into the CA State Assembly, where first and second hearings were held. After being amended, it was ordered for a third reading on August 25th 2020, but it died in the state assembly, never being voted on.
One of the key advocates of SB1399, Dana Hadl of Bet Tzedek, said in a press statement quoted in the LA Times:
“As advocates, we are so very disappointed that we weren’t able to convince the Legislature to prioritize this urgent, critical bill…We have been fighting for change in this industry for 20 years, and we are not giving up the fight.”
Why Aren’t Human Rights a Priority in the CA Assembly?
COVID-19 posed some difficulties to the California legislative session. With tensions high amongst the state’s Republicans and Democrats due to COVID-related concerns, partisan politics proceeded to impede legislative efficiency throughout the night. Politico coverage of the 2020 California legislative session stated: “The animosity between Assembly and Senate Dems was crystallized by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins’ housing bill dying because it got out of the Assembly too late for a final Senate vote…channeling widespread frustration in the Senate about how the Assembly managed the clock.” Politico reports further stated that the delays ensued pushed back voting on key legislation: “After an hour-plus delay, Democrats rolled back the rule — and then bills started dying for lack of time as the clock ran down.”
SB1399 was one of those bills. Despite the support it had from California Senate Democrats, it was not deemed a priority issue by Assembly Democrats.
But why was such an important human rights issue not a priority?
Deprioritization of the Garment Worker Protection Act was in large part due to the strong pro-business coalition emphasizing a “pro-business” tone of extreme deregulation to “recover” from COVID-19’s devastation on the economy — and while it was not enough to fully sway the minds of California legislators, it seems as though it was enough for them to reorganize priorities in the midst of a pandemic, pushing the Garment Worker Protection Act lower on the priority list.
CalChamber, and the California Retailers Association, two business lobbying groups, representing “a quarter of the state’s employment,” strongly oppose SB1399. Claims in an opposition document they released include that eliminating the piece pay rate is both unnecessary and harmful because, as they argue, it is “impossible” to pay below minimum wage — they argue the piece pay rate gives the opportunity to earn higher than minimum wage. However, given their consumer and retail centric position, it is clear that they have not done due diligence to talk to garment workers and ensure that they are actually being paid minimum wage or higher. On the ground research conducted by Remake has found that the narratives of Yeni are not one-offs.
Teresa Garcia, a garment worker leader in LA is another garment worker still working in the middle of a pandemic. In a conversation with Remake’s community of advocates, she speaks from right outside her workplace, on a hot California summer afternoon, with the sun beating down on her masked face. Her remarks, translated:
“I have worked in garment [manufacturing] for the last 32 years…we really are exploited workers…we are paid very poorly, we are not paid for our sick days, we don’t have paid breaks.”
Additional statistics from UCLA Labor Center indicate that: “80.5 percent of garment workers were working in excess of overtime limits; many earned less than the minimum wage despite working as many as 13 hours a day and taking work home because they were paid by the piece.”
Hiding behind “pro-business” rhetoric has allowed associations like CalChamber and California Retail Association to justify these human rights abuses through the lens of job creation. They are blind to the stories of Yeni, and Teresa — workers who are being taken advantage of so that retailers and manufacturers can ILLEGALLY profit off them as middlemen.
Furthermore, opposition from CalChamber and California Retail Association claim that the liability for labor violations instituted by the bills “brand guarantor” legal status wrongfully punishes brands and retailers that have no control over the system of production and sourcing. Labelling the Garment Worker Protection Act, a “job killer,” they argue: by eliminating contracting in the CA apparel industry, brands will no longer have financial incentive to take on the expense of production themself, and so will decrease production on massive scales, thus contributing to a large decline in the CA economy.
But clothing businesses, and smaller designers especially have been employing an ethical production cycle for years, and at no opportunity cost to their sales. Alnea Farahbella, an LA based designer, and owner of Toit Volant, explains how she went about looking for manufacturers, as her brand began to grow: “I basically went into the factory asking to use the machines. And that really gave me the reality of what we are doing in Los Angeles, and what we are dealing with.” That personal connection is what convinced Alnea to sign on as a business owner in support of SB1399.
Alnea also points out that fashion brands are extremely reputation sensitive, because consumers have a significant purchasing power in the apparel industry. So if LA were to embrace ethical production, and become the sustainable capital of the world, it is quite possible we would see a migration of jobs into the LA garment industry.
“We could be as competitive as Portugal, Japan, Italy, but it’s just not together yet. So it’s exciting because if we work together to create vocational training, and to push it together, LA could be phenomenal to bring jobs in…and you know when you come into our factory, when you are paying the right wages, when you have breaks that are paid, when you have sick leave paid, you can see the difference.”
Alnea’s continues, “I think change is difficult but if we continue to say: you can make these changes and still have margins, but it’s all about educating the end consumer, educating the brands, educating the production managers coming through…It’s here, it’s just disconnected right now.” Alnea’s quality control and dedication is admirable, but does it translate to a larger production cycle, and more complicated value chain?
Kristine Kim, a leading Global Value Chain Strategist and UN consultant, certainly seems to think it’s possible. In her work creating and maximizing social and environmental value within the entire fashion supply chain, she’s advised a number of brands in ethical supply management, and even consulted for organizations like the United Nations through the Better Work Program. In a conversation with Remake’s Ayesha Barenblat, she says: “When I moved back to Los Angeles about a year ago, I was very surprised to discover that what SB1399 is seeking to do, which is to set the compensation floor, as the hourly minimum wage is not upheld in CA, but it’s already common practice in the global industry…It’s certainly international labor law.”
Ethical labor standards like minimum wage rates, are already industry standards. In fact, according to LA times reporting, The Vernon Company, a lifestyle brand consulting firm, has already taken the issue of ethical value chains seriously, announcing: “a host of reforms of its contracting practices and surpris[ing] the industry this summer with its declared support of the bill. (SB1399)”.
The fact that fair wage practices and ethical labor standards are business endorsed and already internationally implemented calls into question California’s commitment to human rights.
Kim goes on to say:
“California is one the largest economies in the world, certainly one of the more progressive states in the country, you would assume that the labor laws in California would be at least as good as the labor laws in say Cambodia.”
Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Paired with a chaotic COVID-era legislative session, effects were clearly devastating for garment workers in the September Community Call with Remake, The Future of Fashion is Worker-led Sustainability, Senator Durazo said: “The majority of members supported this bill. In both the Senate and the house, and to not have gotten that expressed in a vote is really terrible. The system failed. The system failed the workers.” And Senator Durazo is no stranger to system failures. “I think about my own family you know, farmworker background, and how we had to work many times for the piece rate, and how abusive it was, in the fields, and in the same way it’s abusive for garment workers.”
In the desperation to regain economic traction in the wake of COVID-19, has California silently prioritized the quantity of jobs over the quality of jobs?
Given the impact of COVID-19 on the state economy, California’s primary goals encourage any legislation that would stimulate business growth and contribute to the GDP. According to the May Revision Budget Proposal top priorities outlined in Governor Newsom’s statement are supporting job creation, economic recovery and opportunity. But economic stimulation and job creation does not have to come at a cost to human rights. To that effect, the number of businesses that support SB1399 and Garment Worker Protection legislation is growing. Among the most notable brands that have signed on in support of SB1399 are: Reformation, LACAUSA, Modiste, and so many more.
Despite the retailer centric, pro-business opposition to de-prioritize a human rights issue, it seems that this new leg of the push to pass the Garment Worker Protection Act has an increasing level of support from an ethically responsible and reputation sensitive business community.
What’s Next for SB1399?
Now more than ever it is necessary for garment workers to be guaranteed labor protections and ethical working standards and conditions. COVID-19 has resulted in brands unexpectedly cancelling contracts, and refusing to pay for already produced garments — leaving garment workers uncompensated — in a situation where they have no possibility of securing any other income.
But there is still hope. While Kim suggests that COVID-19 has definitely accelerated any sort of market inefficiencies, it has also increased conscious consumerism and education among consumer bases. Social media platforms, and campaigns like PayUp Fashion speak directly to the power of information dissemination in a digital world. And especially during a pandemic, consumers are doing everything in their power to hold fast fashion brands like LA Apparel, H&M, etc., accountable for their sourcing model. Kim predicts that the landscape of the fashion industry post-pandemic, will be primed for reformation. She also notes, like Ayesha, that California is unique in that all of the levels of garment production are in state — from cotton farmers to processing facilities to ethical brands — making CA the ideal environment for pursuing an ethical and sustainable value chain. Kristin Kim says:
“Should SB1399 be passed in the next year, California would absolutely be set on the trajectory to become the sustainable capital of fashion I think.”
Senator Durazo seems hopeful too. While she does have a sense that the opposition to this bill will persist, she does make a point to acknowledge the power of collective action: “I just really want to make sure everyone understands that we have the support. It was really hard but we got the support and it just goes to show you the power of collectively coming together and supporting one another when it’s fair. That’s all we’re asking for.”
When SB1399 is going to be reintroduced next year (under a different name), Senator Durazo wants CA residents to remember: “If we don’t sustain the support that we have built up it’s going to be much harder the next time around.” Beyond just legislator support, garment workers like Teresa Garcia want California residents to know that advocacy is the most important step. Continuing to support ethical labor standards through donating to the GWC goes a long way. Senator Durzo also goes on to say that business participation is crucial in the second phase of the campaign to pass the Garment Worker Protection Act. “As small business owners, you are the only ones that could say: I know how to do it (ethical production), and it’s a growing number of people that do it, so your voice is so important…so please stay and grow in this campaign!”
The Call to Action
Garment worker protections aren’t just a business issue. They are a matter of human rights. And it is up to us, as citizens of a more fair and just world, to make our garment workers, like Yeni and Teresa a top priority in 2021 and beyond. Here’s what you can do to help.
First, if you are in a position to do so, donate to the cause through the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles. Your donations go to helping garment workers like Yeni and Teresa Garcia organize their workforce and advocate for their rights. If you are a business interested in committing to an ethical supply chain, sign on to this petition.
Secondly, go to payupfashion.com and sign the petition for the second leg of Remake’s #PayUp campaign. Under this new phase, Remake outlines a seven step plan to end labor abuse in the garment manufacturing industry.
Lastly, advocate and educate on social media. Resharing, posting, and commenting can go a long way in holding reputation sensitive brands and retailers accountable.
Follow @remakeourworld and @garmentworkercenter to reshare content about the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB1399) and increase name recognition of the bill. A strong social media push can not only increase support, but also serve to make garment worker protections a priority issue in the 2021 legislative session.
Images: Unsplash, Gage Skidmore/Flickr