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Bill Protecting 100,000 Garment Workers Moves Forward in Congress

Three months after its Senate introduction, a bill that promotes reshoring and fairer wages in the American apparel industry is making its House of Representatives debut.

Despite their economic and cultural contributions, garment workers “all too often” grapple with exploitation and poverty pay, said New York congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, who introduced the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act with fellow Democrats Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Deborah Ross of North Carolina on Monday.

“Cementing the United States as the global leader in manufacturing apparel responsibly by putting forth worker safeguards, increased oversight and transparency of the industry and creating incentives to bring jobs back to the U.S. will have positive impacts on our nation’s economy and commitment to the American worker for generations to come,” she said.

The bill, which will protect 100,000 workers nationwide, seeks to mandate hourly pay in the garment industry, eliminate piece-rate pay until the minimum wage is met and set up new requirements that hold fashion brands and retailers jointly liable for workplace violations. To revitalize American manufacturing, the FABRIC Act plans to create a $40 million Domestic Garment Manufacturing Support Program and establish a 30 percent reshoring tax credit for garment manufacturers who move their operations to the United States.

The proposed legislation hopes to do for the rest of the country what California’s Garment Worker Protection Act, or SB 62, did for the Golden State in September—and then some.

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“It’s necessary to have federal protections because garment workers are not only here in California but in many areas across the country,” said Gloria, a member of the Garment Worker Center, a Los Angeles-based workers’ rights group. “To earn the minimum wage instead of the piece rate is so important because then you know what you’re earning and can budget around that. Earning by the piece rate doesn’t even provide for shoes. And because everything comes from the top in this industry, it’s important fashion brands are responsible for wage theft. Everyone will benefit in this way.”

Senator Kristin Gillibrand, the New York Democrat who debuted the bill in May, said it’s time to take “bold action” at the federal level to “change the fabric” of the America’s apparel-producing sector.

“Protecting the garment workforce is a sustainability issue and has direct impacts on environmental sustainability, community development, gender equality and economic prosperity,” she said. “I originated the landmark FABRIC Act in the Senate to thread the needle of protecting workers’ rights, putting an end to abusive pay rates and ensuring equitable compensation for garment workers, while also making historic investments in domestic garment manufacturing so we can not only make American but buy American.”

The American Apparel & Footwear Association, which previously opposed SB 62, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America cautiously welcomed the FABRIC Act when it was unveiled at the start of summer.

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

Other measures to boost made in the U.S.A. should also be considered,  such as the fact that American apparel manufacturers that import foreign yarns and fabrics often have to pay high tariffs on “those desperately needed materials.” Many domestic clothing makers also “compete at a disadvantage” with factories that are accorded special preferences and exemptions by the United States because they operate in federal prisons, they added.