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California’s Garment Worker Protection Act Gathers Steam—Again

Los Angeles’ legion of garment workers and their allies are continuing their fight against wage theft and unsuitable work conditions in the city’s apparel factories.

On Wednesday, at a virtual conference hosted by the L.A.-based Garment Worker Center (GWC), county and state officials, workers and industry insiders gathered for the official launch of a campaign to pass the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB 62), which would close loopholes in current California laws that enable brands to shirk responsibility for working conditions and avoid paying workers their full wages.

The legislation, which was co-authored by California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo and Assembly Members Lorena Gonzalez and Ash Kalra, was introduced on Monday—the first day bill submissions for the 2021 legislative season could be entered for consideration. The new bill expands upon provisions laid out in an existing Garment Worker Protection Act (GWPA) introduced in February, furthering brand liability for unpaid wages, affording augmented authority to the state Bureau of Field Enforcement to implement sanctions and creating a “rebuttable presumption” in favor of worker testimony regarding wage theft. The bill also notably stipulates “upstream liability” for contracted production facilities, so they are also responsible for compensating workers wronged by the system.

Assembly member Gonzalez described the challenges that stymied the original bill in late August. SB 1399 failed to be called to a vote before the state Assembly adjourned, missing the deadline for passing a bill out of the legislature for the current two-year session.

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“There were so many priorities and there was such chaos going on that unfortunately, it didn’t get heard,” she said, amid a slew of Covid-related disruptions. “It was devastating, because we did have the votes.”

“We believe the votes will be there again this year, but it does give us additional time to organize more,” she added. “I think that that’s important, because we not only need to get it through the Senate and the assembly, but we need the governor to sign it, too.”

According to the GWC, which endeavors to improve conditions for the city’s 46,200 apparel workers, labor violations are rampant across the L.A. area—and the trend has only accelerated throughout the pandemic. The group cited 2010 data from the UCLA Labor Center that showed 88 percent of low-wage workers in the region experience wage theft—and the garment industry was shown to commit the highest level of infractions.

In tracking Covid’s impact on the wellbeing and livelihood of garment workers in recent months, the GWC found that an already dire situation has been heightened as the country has turned to apparel brands for aid in producing much-needed PPE. Over 400 local brands signed up for Mayor Garcetti’s L.A. Protects program in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which spurred the production of millions of masks and gowns at an “unprecedented rate.”

Amid this production rush, the group argued, thousands of garment workers “were left unprotected by an industry long-known for insufficient pay and occupational hazards.” They faced mask shortages, poorly ventilated workspaces, and blocked exits to cramped factories. They were also denied sick leave and hazard pay, as well as healthcare services.

GWC data shows that 89 percent of the city’s garment workers have also been food insecure throughout the Covid crisis, while 93 percent expressed worry about paying rent and 97 percent have struggled to pay for housing utility bills.

Assembly member Gonzalez said much of the wage theft issue stems from manufacturers’ practice of paying workers per piece produced, rather than by the hour as stipulated by law. “When clothing manufacturers pay garment workers by the piece, they can get away with paying poverty wages,” she added.

According to the GWC, thousands of brands that choose to manufacture in Los Angeles engage in unfair practices like this. The group specifically called out Gen Z favorite Fashion Nova, along with fast-fashion e-commerce brand Windsor, Charlotte Russe, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters and Lulu’s as “top offenders” for “leveraging their high-volume purchases to demand lower prices from a network of manufacturers and sub-contractors.” Brands “routinely price their orders so low that factory owners are encouraged to skirt labor law,” they said.

Senator Durazo told attendees that “Hundreds of millions of dollars in wage theft and unsanitary conditions were prevalent before the virus and have been exacerbated during the pandemic,” despite the fact that L.A.’s garment workers have found themselves on the front lines of a global health crisis.

Durazo said the city’s workers—“most of them immigrant women” from Central and South America—are doing “highly skilled work” for 10-12 hours per day. Workers are paid an average of $5 per hour—far lower than the state’s mandatory $13 minimum wage for businesses with more than 26 employees—and the average salary comes out to about $297 per week.

“They are the backbone of our very prosperous fashion industry that’s going in Los Angeles,” she said, “and yet, we can see that they are living in similar sweatshop conditions to European immigrant women in the 1900s.”

Because of the “widespread abuse” that has proliferated across the industry for years, along with routine wage theft, workers have been forced to sue the state for unpaid wages, which are being paid up to five years late. “These workers rely on a restitution fund and the taxpayers are footing the bill for manufacturers who are not paying the workers,” Durazo said.

Though she is confident that the bill does indeed have the votes to pass, Durazo called out groups like the California Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the legislation on the basis that it could hinder brands’ ability to continue to conduct business as usual and force them to look overseas for cheaper labor. “In my experience in the legislature, I believe that for the Chamber of Commerce to label this a ‘job killer’—it’s going to have a lot of influence,” she said.

At the conference, garment worker and campaign leader Santa Puac said she is determined to continue to fight for the provisions laid out in the GWPA. “With this law I will have a salary that I have never had for 20 years, and I would not have to worry about wage theft,” she said.

“Every garment worker is an expert in her or his profession, and it may seem simple, but each of us has certain skills that must be respected as in all other professions,” she added. “We want to be respected equally.”