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California Garment Worker Act Stumbles Without Assembly Vote

Negotiations over a bill designed to improve the conditions of California’s garment workers have hit an impasse after it failed to be called to a vote before the State Assembly adjourned at midnight Sunday, the deadline for passing a bill out of the legislature for the current two-year session.

The California Garment Worker Protection Act, also known as SB 1399, sought to ensure a minimum wage for workers by eliminating the traditional piece-rate payment structure, prevent wage theft and hold retailers such as Fashion Nova and Nordstrom liable for wage violations no matter how many layers of subcontracting they used.

“I’m disheartened that SB 1399 did not prevail in the final hours of the legislative session,” State Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the bill, said in a statement. “2020 has not been the best year.”

Durazo is not giving up, however. She plans to make the garment worker bill a priority in the upcoming legislative session. “Every day wage theft continues to cheat workers out of their pay and while workers continue to be paid by the piece, they continue earning on average $5 an hour,” she said, quoting a number far below California’s minimum wage of $13 per hour for businesses with more than 26 employees.“We will grow our coalition and come back even stronger.”

Still, her dismay is palpable. “I’m disappointed that the legislature ran out of time to move forward with this bill to make sure garment workers are paid at least a minimum wage, and hold fashion brands and clothing manufacturers responsible for abiding by the law,” Durazo added. “These workers have already waited too long for justice in their workplace. We must tackle this issue as soon as possible.”

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Despite facing opposition from more than a dozen business groups, which have dubbed the Garment Worker Protection Act a “job killer,” SB 1399 fielded widespread support from garment workers, labor groups, the faith community and 55 fashion businesses, including brands such as Reformation and Fashion Nova.

The Garment Worker Center, a California labor-rights group and co-sponsor of the bill, expressed its disheartenment over SB 1399’s defeat simply because “time ran out on the legislative clock.”

“Our members rallied a broad coalition of support, they made calls all week to Assembly members and sat on a Zoom watch party for three long days, waiting to hear their bill get voted on,” said Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, which represents the more than 45,000 garment workers who are concentrated in downtown Los Angeles. “They fully believed they would win because ensuring they are paid the legal minimum wage is such a reasonable demand.”

But they will not falter, Nuncio said. “While they acknowledged a reality they know too well—not enough people ‘care about us’—they still vowed to keep organizing and to make them care,” she added.

Dana Hadl, director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, another co-sponsor of the bill, agreed that change is not made overnight—or even the course of a year.

“We have been fighting for change in this industry for 20 years, and we are not giving up the fight,” Hadl said. “We will continue taking the lead from our clients, the garment workers, who have already announced that they will be back next year. Together we will fight to put an end to the unlawful, exploitative industry practices and loopholes that have not only allowed, but have fostered, these shameless–and shameful–conditions here in California.”

Yet not everyone supports the bill. The California Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business advocacy group, wrote last week that eliminating piece-rate pay will “significantly increase the burden on non-unionized employers in the garment manufacturing industry in California.” SB 1399’s liability requirements, it added, may also “encourage companies to contract with manufacturers outside of California, thereby limiting the demand and work force of garment manufacturers in California.”