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AAFA Criticized California’s Garment Worker Bill. Its Members Seem to Feel Differently.

As the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB62) continues its journey through the California legislature, some players are speaking out in support of its passage.

At an event hosted by Remake and the Garment Worker Center on Wednesday, Reformation joined denim manufacturer Saitex in championing the proposed bill, which would eliminate the controversial piece-rate payment model, provide more stringent safeguards against worker wage theft, and hold brands responsible for damaging practices perpetuated across their supply chains.

Saitex founder and CEO Sanjeev Bahl spoke to being “appalled and shocked” by the realities of U.S. apparel production, especially in Los Angeles, which is home to the bulk of the country’s garment factories. “I’ve spent most of my life manufacturing overseas,” he said, describing harsh conditions and unfair work terms that persist across the globe. “I was completely shocked when I got here to understand that traces of modern-day slavery exist over here as well.”

Many California garment workers’ status as immigrants only exacerbates their vulnerability to exploitation, Bahl said.

“The state has allowed businesses to take advantage of this gray area, and pay people less than minimum wage” due to the fact that undocumented workers have little recourse, he said. “I just cannot believe that people could be treated unfairly, in such an unjust manner, and taken advantage of in the modernized environment that we live in today.”

In California, the piece-rate model—wherein workers are paid based on their production volume rather than by the hour—remains a legal practice for apparel manufacturing. SB62 seeks to level the playing field, ensuring that workers can’t be paid less than state or county-mandated minimum wage laws stipulate. In Los Angeles, that rate is $15 per hour.

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“We’re responsible for creating safe, healthy and equitable working conditions for our teams and the garment workers throughout our supply chain,” said Carrie Freiman, sustainability director for Reformation. Supporting SB62 dovetails with a brand ethos centered on “sustainability, and dignity for the people that make our clothes,” she added.

Freiman called Reformation’s support of the bill “a really easy decision” given that the L.A.-based brand manufactures two-fifths of its total product volume in the area. Reformation has long touted its Made-in-the-U.S.A. roots and attention to supply chain ethics as a point of differentiation and distinction, but for many Western labels, those concerns often take a backseat to margin, she said.

“I think unfortunately we live in a time where fast fashion is as prevalent as ever, and to keep up with demand and maintain profitability, many brands look to have their garments made cheaply,” she added, noting that workers bear the brunt of the impact. Damaging practices have been allowed to fester largely unchecked, due to “a real lack of regulation from the industry at large, as well as from the government,” she said.

“It’s really up to each brand to hold themselves accountable,” Freiman said. But the lack of oversight has allowed bad actors to proliferate, and continue to perpetuate practices that undermine workers.

Some industry advocacy groups have voiced opposition to the bill, claiming that it could harm American brands and California’s garment sector as a whole. California’s Chamber of Commerce included the Garment Worker Protection Act on its annual list of “job killer” bills for 2021, claiming that its passage would significantly increase the burden on employers, and could ultimately encourage them to contract with manufacturers outside of the state.

Meanwhile, the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA)—which counts more than 1,000 apparel and footwear brands as members—has voiced opposition to SB62 in its current form, citing certain aspects of the bill that it believes are unfair to those that manufacture stateside.

“Although well-intentioned, the bill, as currently written, would, among other things, impose unprecedented joint liability on businesses with no control over garment workers,” AAFA wrote to California’s State Assembly last month. SB62 “does not recognize that brands or buyers may have little to no control over how a particular garment factory employer manages their payroll or enterprise finances,” it added.

But according to Remake advocacy and policy director and PayUp Fashion Coalition coordinator Elizabeth Cline, “The idea that even big business is in opposition to the bill is overstated—and quite frankly, might be fabricated.”

Cline said that her personal outreach to AAFA members revealed different feelings about the garment worker bill than the trade organization has let on. “It doesn’t appear that many of their members were even notified before the trade body came out in opposition,” she said. Several large apparel and footwear players have clarified to Remake that while they haven’t endorsed the legislation, they do not share AAFA’s sentiments that the bill could damage their businesses, she said.

Patagonia, an AAFA member, told the group that it does not oppose SB62, noting that the trade group’s statement is not representative of the company’s position. “Adidas likewise says that they are not involved or engaged in any lobbying related to this proposed legislation,”according to Cline.

“It is our understanding that these trade associations often reflexively issue statements in opposition to labor rights laws that don’t actually reflect the industry’s position,” she said. The AAFA, Adidas and Patagonia did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Cline also took aim at AAFA’s assertion that brands relinquish control over the way that finances are managed through their factory partners, noting a U.S. Department of Labor investigation that found that brands are often paying 73 percent less than would be required to ensure that workers make minimum wage.

The U.S. is lagging behind its European counterparts on the issue, she added. In June, Germany passed a law making medium-to-large businesses responsible for due diligence in combating supply chain human rights violations. France’s Duty of Vigilance Act, passed in 2017, requires companies with more than 5,000 employees in the country and 10,000 worldwide to examine and inspect their supply chains regularly, including all contractors and suppliers.

“The notion that brands somehow have no control over what happens in factories is so outdated,” Cline said. It’s long past time for the U.S. to become a leader in ethical and sustainable business, she added. “Right now, we’re quite frankly reflecting views that that haven’t really been popular for decades.”