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FABRIC Act Wants to Make American Manufacturing Great Again

Seven months after California’s garment workers scored a hard-earned win for fairer wages, their fight is going nationwide.

Standing on the production floor of Ferrara Manufacturing in New York City’s Garment District on Friday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand unveiled the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change—a.k.a. FABRIC—Act, a bill that seeks to eradicate the piece-rate system for all garment employees in the United States, introduce new transparency measures, incentivize reshoring and create a domestic garment manufacturing grant program.

Original co-sponsors of the FABRIC Act, also known as S.4213, include Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). If passed, the measure will protect nearly 100,000 workers who have long faced unsafe working conditions, wage theft and poverty pay, Gillibrand said.

“The reality is that people who make our clothes are too often not employed fairly, treated fairly or paid fairly for the work in an industry that’s vital to our economy and our daily lives,” the New York lawmaker said. “The tragic and deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 laid bare the working conditions that women, men and children were forced to endure. But it’s clear that we haven’t made enough progress in the 111 years since then. Conditions in garment factories led by bad actors still need to be addressed.”

The FABRIC Act wants to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to include the establishment of a nationwide garment industry registry through the Department of Labor to “promote transparency, hold bad actors accountable and level the playing field.” It will also set up new requirements to hold fashion brands and retailers jointly liable alongside their manufacturing partners for workplace wage violations. Just as important, the measure will mandate hourly pay in the garment industry, eliminating piece-rate pay until the minimum wage is met to “ensure jobs with dignity.”

“Many brands contract out their manufacturing to other companies who pay what’s called a piece rate, meaning that you get paid not based on how many hours you work, but how many items that you make,” Gillibrand said, denouncing the “unregulated” “rates that drive people to work at unspeakable speed [while] earning less than $3 a day.

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“I’ve heard about shops that will underpin or simply refuse to pay their workers, that are purposely shut down and open shop across the town under a different name, just to dodge their responsibilities,“ she continued. “These practices are inhumane and unacceptable. No one should be paid so little for such hard work.“

At the same time, the FABRIC Act will help “restore” American manufacturing, she said. The bill proposes a $40 million Domestic Garment Manufacturing Support Program to help manufacturers pay for equipment costs, safety improvements and workforce training and development. It also suggests a 30 percent reshoring tax credit for garment manufacturers who move their operations to the United States, “giving more people the opportunity to buy American.”

“American consumers actually prefer that their clothes are made equitably and sustainably,” Gillibrand said. “This legislation will help ensure that we go to our closets in the morning [and] look for something to wear, we can find clothes that were actually made in America and made fairly. Together we’re going to revitalize an industry that is vital to the fabric of America in every single way.”

Gillibrand said she plans to ask for a vote between now and the end of the year amid what she recognizes as a growing labor and unionization movement in the country.

“People are tired of employers that take advantage of them,” she said. “We’ve seen this with Amazon, with Starbucks, and [we’re seeing] workers mobilizing—younger workers, newer workers who never thought about joining a union or participating in unionization—actually working hard toward that end. So I think there’s a [major] push toward economic equality, economic opportunity and sustainability that this movement is very much part of.”

‘Sorely lacking’

Speaking at the same press conference, Edgar Romney, secretary-treasurer of labor organization Workers United, said that garment workers in the United States have for “far too long” faced abusive and exploitative conditions.

“These conditions are perpetuated by a lack of accountability for the fast-fashion brands and retailers at the top of the supply chain whose relentless quest for profit drives exploitation further down the chain,” he said. “Having worked on these issues for many, many years, we know that the FABRIC Act is exactly the kind of legislation we need to fix this broken system and ensure that jobs in the United States garment industry are good jobs with dignity and respect.”

By promoting joint liability, the legislation will deliver a level of legal accountability that “has been sorely lacking in this modern apparel industry” while allowing workers to pursue legal remedies from the “same brands and retailers whose business practices led to abuses and who have managed to evade responsibility for decades,” Romney said. Garment workers, he added, suffer the second-highest rate of wage theft in the United States. The bill, on the other hand, would create a minimum wage for the industry.

The Garment Worker Center, one of the biggest champions of the California Worker Protection Act, or SB 62, told Sourcing Journal that its members enthusiastically voted to endorse and campaign for the FABRIC Act, which they’re happy to see go further by encouraging domestic production.

“Less than one year after the success of our campaign to pass the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, it is incredibly inspiring to see it provide the framework for federal legislation,” said Marissa Nuncio, director of the Los Angeles-based worker rights group. “We’ve been excited to work with Senator Gillibrand’s office to craft the FABRIC Act because we know that protections for garment workers and multilateral accountability in the supply chain that are consistent across the country are the best way to ensure a garment manufacturing industry that is healthy and thriving for all—workers and businesses.”

New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, whose own fashion-industry legislation, the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, a.k.a Assembly Bill A8352, has now moved to committee, said she is thrilled to see momentum building at the federal level.

“The fashion industry operates largely unchecked and underregulated–it is clear that legislative action is needed to address the multitude of environmental and labor shortcomings,” Biaggi, who is spearheading the measure with Assemblywoman Anna R. Kelles, told Sourcing Journal. “I look forward to continuing the conversation of how New York, the fashion capital of the world, can continue to lead with innovation and reform on this topic.”

By matching incentives to manufacture in the United States with stronger worker protections, said Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, Gillibrand’s bill will help ensure that an “increase in worker protections doesn’t have the unintended consequences of shrinking the domestic industry even further.”

“We are so happy that Senator Gillibrand understands the important role the fashion industry plays and the need to protect domestic workers,” Bédat, whose fashion think tank endorses both the Fashion Act and the FABRIC Act. “The FABRIC Act will be a part of a suite of legislation that needs to pass to address the social and environmental issues facing the fashion industry.”

“The FABRIC Act builds upon the multilateral accountability of California’s Garment Worker Protection Act and sets a minimum wage floor and is therefore aligned with Remake’s mission to get women in fashion paid fairly,” Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of the fashion advocacy group, which pushed for the passage of SB 62, told Sourcing Journal. “Moreover, this bill has the right incentives to create jobs of dignity in the U.S., including a grant program and tax credits. Finally, the bill has wide support from industry and organized labor. For us, we always take the lead of workers themselves when supporting policy reform.”

This is not a new fight, Barenblat said, echoing Gillibrand’s invocation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. “One hundred years ago, women were on the frontlines fighting for dignity, fighting for unionized jobs when the terrible fire happened,” she said. “One hundred years later, the fight continues. I think [that in] 2022 simply asking for a minimum wage rather than a piece rate is the minimum. But guess what, we have also talked to manufacturers and brands across the country, from New York to the Carolinas to Texas to San Francisco, and many of them were early endorsers of the bill because they want to have an industry that invests in its workforce, that invests in technology, that makes sustainable products.”

Carrie Freiman Parry, senior director of sustainability at It-girl label Reformation, agreed that the fashion industry “is in need of a serious systemic overhaul,” and that as a brand, it has a responsibility to help “create safe, healthy, and equitable working conditions for the workers throughout our supply chain.”

“We’re energized to see the progress made by landmark legislation like California’s SB 62, but there’s much more work to be done,” Parry, who joined Another Tomorrow, Mara Hoffman and other brands in endorsing the bill, said in a statement. With that, we are proud to support the FABRIC Act and build on these efforts of raising the workplace protection standards at a national level. This bill has the potential to realize ethical working conditions and the wellbeing of garment workers across the U.S., with impacts far beyond.”

The American Apparel & Footwear Association, which previously feared that SB 62’s joint liability clause would drive businesses out of California, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America cautiously welcomed the legislation and the carrots it would dangle in front of domestic manufacturers and designers alike.

“There’s a well-placed focus on supporting women, including a growth of technical jobs for women domestically, and it is long past time that limited piecework practices that still exist be eliminated fully so that workers are not paid below the minimum wage,” the trade groups said in a joint statement. “As a federal measure, the legislation creates opportunities to avoid a patchwork of conflicting state regulations.”

At the same time, the organizations said that the legislation raises “important policy considerations” that need to be “further refined” so that they are “effective and accomplish their intent,” such as structuring joint liability provisions so that they focus only on the work for which brands are directly responsible.

Other measures to promote domestic manufacturing should also be considered, they added. “For example, U.S. apparel manufacturers that have to import foreign yarns and fabrics that are not made domestically often have to pay high tariffs on those desperately needed materials,” the organizations said. “Also, surprisingly, many U.S. apparel makers compete at a disadvantage to factories that are accorded special preferences by the U.S. and shielded from domestic labor laws as they operate in federal prisons.”