A bill designed to improve the conditions of California’s tens of thousands of garment workers quietly passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month and will now move to the Senate Appropriations Committee as it inches its way closer to becoming law.
The Garment Worker Protection Act, which was introduced Dec. 7 as Senate Bill 62 by State Senator María Elena Durazo, expands upon a previous, similar bill, SB 1399, which failed to be called to a vote before the State Assembly adjourned last September, the deadline for passing a bill out of the legislature for the 2019-2020 session.
SB 62 is meant to close loopholes that allow wage theft to flourish in the Golden State’s garment industry by establishing a form of “upstream liability” that holds contractors of garment production responsible for wages, damages, penalties and other compensation owed to the people who make those items—no matter how many layers of contracting are in between.
The bill also seeks to broadly eliminate the traditional piece-rate wage structure that pays California garment workers for every hem, cuff or sleeve they stitch, ensuring instead that they’re paid legal minimum wages—$14 per hour for employers with 26 or more employees, and $13 per hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees—for all the time they spend working while still allowing for incentive-based bonuses.
The current “vicious price competition” endemic to the industry, Durazo wrote in a legislative factsheet for SB 62, means workers are paid an average of $5.15 per hour.
“Los Angeles is the center of California’s ‘underground economy’—a system characterized by scofflaw employers cheating workers out of billions in wages owed to them under minimum wage and overtime laws,” she said. “No industry is rifer with these violations than the garment industry, where so-called retailers that contract with a network of manufacturers and subcontractors to produce their garments dictate the pricing structure.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee will conduct the third of three hearings in the Senate. Once SB 62 passes through the Senate, it will proceed to the Assembly, where a new cycle of hearings will begin. The road ahead is long, but labor advocates say they’re ready to “keep fighting for SB 62’s passage,” Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, a California labor-rights group sponsoring the bill, told Sourcing Journal.
“We are excited that SB 62 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Nuncio said “Most exciting was the powerful testimony given by our member leader, Ana, and the many garment workers, local businesses and community allies who called in to urge an aye vote. This win moves workers closer to wage justice and ethical fashion business closer to a level playing field.”
Downtown Los Angeles is home to some 2,000 garment manufacturers, employing more than 45,000 people, according to the Garment Worker Center. Most of the city’s garment workers are immigrant women—likely undocumented and therefore ineligible for unemployment benefits—who spend 10 to 12 hours each day cutting, sewing and dyeing clothing.
Though more than a dozen business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Retailers Association, have labeled the Garment Worker Protection Act as a “job killer” for an industry that has seen significant business abscond to cheaper locales overseas, the bill garnered the support of several businesses, including Reformation, Suay Sew Shop and—surprisingly—Fashion Nova, whose suppliers a 2019 Labor Department investigation found owed workers $3.8 million in back pay.
“This is a monumental occasion for the fashion industry and garment workers statewide because we haven’t seen any major reform to protect garment workers in over 20 years,” Nicholas Brown, director of policy for Fashion Revolution U.S.A., a grassroots group that formed in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, said in a statement.
He noted that the bill comes at a “particularly crucial time” during the pandemic, since many workers are facing the additional risk of exposure to the coronavirus without hazard pay or any social protections.
“California has the power to set the standard for safe, humane, and ethical labor practices in the garment industry that has the opportunity to be replicated well outside of Los Angeles,” Brown added.