Last year, the Garment Worker Protection Act was not called for a floor vote in CA State legislature after what looked to be a promising show of support from the CA business community and members of the CA state Senate. What will the GWC and bill sponsors do differently this time around to ensure that garment worker protections are a priority for the CA state legislature?
Over the past year — one that has been marked by the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — California state legislature failed to pass a bill that would have drastically improved worker health and safety in the state’s second largest manufacturing sector: the garment manufacturing industry. With garment workers being paid per piece rather than a base level minimum wage, subpar working conditions, and the rapid spread of COVID-19 in apparel factories, the overall exploitative labor abuse of LA’s garment workers is remarkably difficult to ignore. In fact, since the early 90’s the LA Garment Industry has been notorious for a work environment resembling, closely, that of a sweatshop. And it has only been getting worse.
In the early months of 2020, CA state legislators introduced a Garment Worker Protection Act (SB 1399), designed to target the rampant labor abuse present in the LA garment industry — and in particular hold corporate brands accountable for the hazardous working conditions in LA factories. The bill faced severe opposition from business lobbying groups: CalChamber and California Retailers Association, which deemed it a “job killer,” calling into question the state’s economic and social priorities during a pandemic. Political pressure from both lobbying groups took offense at the particular proposition of the “brand guarantor” legal status which they claimed wrongfully punishes brands and retailers that have no control over the system of production and sourcing. In a typical year, their argument might have seen more resistance, but given the economic constraints that the pandemic has placed on California’s production capabilities, it’s an argument that seemed to resonate with Assembly members.
The Need for a Garment Worker Protection Act Has Only Become More Dire in the Wake of Covid-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for garment worker protections. SB 62 is a direct response to the extent of the pandemic mismanagement on the health, wellness, and employment of Los Angeles garment workers (who are considered to be essential workers, as they produce PPE).
“We believe that it is unacceptable that if you have been elevated to the status of an essential worker in the public eye, that your labor standards have also not been elevated,” stated Marissa Nuncio of the GWC.
Nuncio’s sentiment is echoed by Senator Durazo, the principal author of 2020’s Garment Worker Protection bill, SB 1399, who noted: “Hundreds of millions of dollars in wage theft and unsanitary conditions were prevalent before the virus and have been exacerbated during the pandemic, even as highly skilled garment workers are making the protective equipment our state needs, often for as little as $5 an hour. California loses millions in stolen wages every year while the loopholes exploited by bad-actor manufacturers have made the garment industry hostile to ethical companies that are doing the right thing.”
It is workers like Santa Puac whom Senator Durazo is speaking about. A garment worker and leader in the GWPA movement, Puac, explains the necessity of such protections: “For the 20 years I have been in this country, I have worked in sewing. As a garment worker we suffer a lot of exploitation [in the garment industry]. I worked in a company that produced about 80% for one fashion label, and at that company I worked from five in the morning to five in the afternoon, and that was for $70 a day and 12 hours a day, and that was $350 for the week, for five days. I don’t think that it’s fair that so many hours have to be worked to earn such little money. We didn’t have a right to have breaks. We didn’t have overtime. They just gave us the $350 for the week. The bathrooms were dirty, there was no toilet paper in the bathrooms, we had to eat on top of the machines we were working. There is a lot of suffering. There is a lot of wage theft.”
And this wage theft has had massive implications, especially during the pandemic. From August 3 through August 10, GWC Dream Fellow Interns conducted a phone survey with 219 LA garment workers regarding their working conditions. They found that: “89% of respondents expressed worry about where their next meal would come from, 93% of respondents expressed worry about how they would pay rent, and 97% of respondents expressed worry about paying for housing utility bills.”
According to Marissa Nuncio of the Garment Worker Center: “the piece rate is the primary system of paying garment workers in this industry, and that’s where workers are only earning according to their output. They’re getting paid pennies at a time, two cents or three cents for sewing or other garment operations. Our report also shows that minimum wage violations are at their highest when the piece rate system is used in comparison to other pay systems such as paying by an hourly rate.”
For upwards of 55 hours a week, piece rate workers are making only an average of $297. For the hours worked, the legal minimum wage would have paid those same workers an average of $601 more.
For garment workers like Santa Puac, it means that under the current legislation, wage theft and the subsequent issues of food insecurity, rent, and housing utilities don’t have any legal recourse. Corporations are free to commit labor abuse without claiming any sort of liability.
The Reintroduction of the Garment Worker Protection Bill in 2021
Now in 2021, the new Garment Worker Protections bill has been reintroduced: SB 62, and this time with significantly more CA legislators in support. The 2020 legislation, introduced initially by Senator Maria Elena Durazo and co-authored by Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez, now boasts additional co-authors: Assembly Member Ash Kalra, Senator Skinner, and Assembly Members Carrillo and Jones-Sawyer. The bill is co-sponsored by the Garment Worker Center, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty — all three of which have led a worker-centric advocacy and education effort to work to make garment worker protections a CA state priority.
During a virtual press conference held by the Garment Worker Center, legislators and supporters of the bill announced that the new bill, SB 62, had been introduced on December 7th, 2020 — the earliest day to submit bills for the 2021 legislative calendar. In her remarks at the GWC hosted event, Senator Durazo emphasized the heightened need for garment worker protections, stating:
“The Garment Worker Protection Act will safeguard legal wages and dignified working conditions for garment professionals, a level playing field for the thousands of garment manufacturers in our state, and an ethical industry here at home.”
SB 62 is still concerned with the three basic principles of fair pay, transparency, and accountability, although it is more specific in its calls to preempt and close potential loopholes:
- Fair pay: SB 62 would maintain the call for the end of the piece pay rate system, notorious for justifying compensation amounts below state minimum wage levels.
- Transparency: SB 62 keeps the legal status of Brand Guarantor (a “garment manufacturer or brand guarantor who contracts with another person for the performance of garment manufacturing operations”) as proposed by the previous bill SB 1399, thus emphasizing the need for transparency in the production chain and establishing full corporate liability in the case for any labor violations occurring in the manufacturing process.
In addition to increasing liability measures, SB 62 would also give the Labor Commissioner’s Bureau of Field Enforcement the right to actively and explicitly “investigate and cite brand guarantors,” ensuring that corporate actors would not be self-regulating under this system. SB 62 also includes specific definitions regarding the extent of manufacturing, “expand[ing] the definition of garment manufacturing to include dyeing, altering a garment’s design, and affixing a label to a garment.”
- Accountability: SB 62 also outlines the need to amend the Garment Worker Protection Fund. This fund, currently takes $75 out of garment manufacturers’ membership fees, and places them into a fund, regulated by the labour commissioner, who dispenses amounts based on the “failure to pay wages and benefits by a garment manufacturer, contractor, or subcontractor.” The proposed changes would allow a completely independent account (called the Garment Special Account), still managed by the labor commissioner, but with added discretion into whose money is accepted, and how much money is accepted.
SB 62 also calls for more direct oversight over complaints of labor abuse by giving the Labor Commissioner the explicit authority to enforce the liability of brand guarantors and garment manufacturers for any occurrence of labor abuse or wage theft. The core of SB 62 streamlines the recourse for justice, stripping the process of unnecessary litigation and bureaucratic stalls.
SB 62 Is Targeting Los Angeles Based Brands That Have Been Taking Advantage of Labor Loopholes
SB 62 is calling out LA based brands that have been taking advantage of the loopholes in the existing AB 633 legislation. This means brands that have claimed that they are not manufacturing products and so should not be held liable for labor abuse. Ross, Fashion Nova, and Charlotte Russe, are just a few examples.
Matthew DeCarlos, a staff attorney at Bet Tzedek Legal services, a co-sponsor of SB 62, called out these brands saying:
“[We] also see problems with unaccountable upchain companies — these companies that are profiting and literally making millions and millions of dollars off of the work of the garment workers but never being held accountable for these egregious violations. These conditions that exist here in California in LA in the year 2020, are the same conditions that immigrant workers, that women workers, faced over 100 years ago, and the sweatshop conditions have not ended, but they must.”
The approach to advocacy in the SB 62 legislation reflects the change in the type of businesses that have contributed to labor abuse within the garment manufacturing industry. In such an era of fast fashion, business models have adapted to focus heavily on fast profits. Because the market is so hypersensitive to trends, brands prioritize manufacturers that are able to deliver on large contracts in short time frames. And because most manufacturers don’t have adequate resources to deliver on such short time frames, they outsource production to smaller factories with less regulation who pay workers by the piece rather than by a standard minimum wage. What this means is workers are generally pulling longer shifts to deliver more inventory, for a fraction of the price.
This system of subcontracting is the basis of the LA garment industry, and it’s the reason why so many brands have gotten away with participating in a system that shortchanges their workers.
As Mitch Steiger from the California Labor Federation says: “This is one of those issues that tends to inspire disbelief among those that you explain these issues to, who aren’t close to these problems, because, it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that should happen in California in 2020, because it is not the thing that should happen in California in 2020, that you have workers in giant buildings working for companies we all hear of making a fraction of the minimum wage, and they’re dealing with health and safety issues that can kill them, a lack of interest in protecting them from COVID-19… very few of these workers are in unions so very few of them benefit from that protection.”
Indeed, the fight for garment worker protections seems to resemble the age old David and Goliath tale: small and exploited workers v. giant and exploitative corporations.
But the reintroduction of the GWPA must contend with the reality of powerful business lobbying forces that played a significant role in deprioritizing the issue last year. While the push for garment worker protections is still primarily a worker-led and worker-centric effort, SB 62 has seen a significant increase in support from a number of ethical fashion brands and businesses with the GWC and the bill’s authors organizing a business coalition. According to Marissa Nuncio of the GWC: “I want to highlight that the business coalition includes: Reformation, NANA Atelier, All for Ramon, SUAY Sew Shop, and Misha Gill. And we are delighted that we have really powerful allies as well: Remake, Fashion Revolution USA, Fibershed, and the PayUp campaign. I think that [workers and ethical fashion] are coming together to really shape the future of the LA garment Industry.”
SB 62 Allies in Fashion
A powerful ethical business community who are committed to ensuring garment workers like Santa Puac are making at least minimum wage in factories with rigorous health and safety measures, can prove to be an invaluable ally for SB 62.
Actress and ethical fashion brand founder, Maggie Q spoke to the GWC regarding her brand, Queep Up’s support of SB 62, saying:“We have a duty as the 5th largest economy in the world, to protect our garment workers and send a message to other strong economies that we don’t exploit migrant workers because we can. We fight for their rights because we should.” And she’s not the only one committed to fighting for garment worker protections.
Kristen Fanarakis, the founder of the ethical fashion brand Senza Tempo, as well as veteran ForEx trader on Wall Street and current environmental and social Financial Policy Consultant in DC, spoke at the virtual GWC press conference on December 9, stating: “For me the ‘Made in America’ label has value from both the legal and monetary perspective. The companies who try to subvert the law by paying less than the minimum wage in order to offer artificially low prices to consumers hurts a brand like Senza Tempo, who believes in the ethics of domestic manufacturing as well as the economics. We live in a world where a t-shirt costs as much as a cup of coffee, even when they are made in the US, and you don’t have to be a finance person to see that that math simply doesn’t add up. Allowing workers to be paid less than the legal minimum wage forces brands like mine to justify our higher prices and explicitly state in our marketing and communications that we are simply following the law by paying workers the legal minimum wage. We have to justify to our consumers why we choose to abide by the law. I can’t think of another industry that uses following the law as a selling point for their product.”
Fair trade is why Fanarakis supports SB 62. The bill promises long term justice by constructing a transparent system to hold illegal practices accountable. Fanarakis notes: “To be truly the progressive leader CA claims to be it must pass SB 62 to level the playing field for companies like mine and lead the way forward as it has done in the past.” The time for fair pay, transparency, and accountability is now.
In 2020, the immediate effects of the pandemic served to drum up a state of economic frenzy, one where extreme pro-business rhetoric emphasized “job growth” and “economic recovery,” ignoring the question of whether the “job growth” the state sought to encourage was safe and sustainable. But this does not have to be the case. Economic recovery, and business growth do not have to come at a cost to human rights. The ethical business coalition in support of SB 62 is the prime example of an ethical economy, and indeed, should be the standard.
Next Steps & How to Support SB 62
Moving into 2021, there seems to be more support and awareness of the deep ethical transgressions of the LA Garment manufacturing industry, not just by a business community, but also by online cohorts of conscious consumers. As reported previously by Remake: “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, etc., accountable for their sourcing model.”
In fact, social media efforts have seen tremendous levels of success in calling out reputation sensitive brands for labor abuse, and will continue to be an important resource for building a community of support for SB 62 in 2021. Social Media campaigns posting, sharing, and commenting #sb62 on brand posts and California state legislators’ posts are expected to soon be underway, and will be updated regularly on the Garment Worker Center Facebook and Instagram pages.
The bill is expecting to face a certain amount of resistance from the both CalChamber and California Retailers Association, and notably has received no comment from Gavin Newsom, but legislators are hopeful given the added ethical business coalition backing SB 62.
It seems that this fight for Garment Worker Protections will boil down to a face off between two different types of businesses: one that is reminiscent of an exploitative and unchecked corporate powerhouse, the other the business marked by a sense of responsibility to its workers in its mission to uphold ethical standards. And in the face of the COVID 19 pandemic, California will have to decide: Will it be swayed by the short term economic benefits that unchecked corporations bring by flouting the law, or will it instead shape the law to come down on the side of fair business practices and ensure that all its citizens are protected?
It is a test of democracy — and a crucial one — that will unfold over the course of 2021.