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What You Need to Know about California’s Garment Worker Protection Act

A new bill designed to improve the conditions of workers who cut and sew clothing in California, where they earn an average of $5.15 an hour, could soon become law, cementing the Golden State’s reputation as a mecca for ethical fashion in an industry rife with labor exploitation and holding retailers such as Fashion Nova and Nordstrom liable for wage violations that occur upstream in their supply chains.

The Garment Worker Protection Act, also known as SB 1399, has wended its way past the State Senate and California’s House Appropriations Committee since it was introduced by State Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) in February. The bill is scheduled to be heard by the full Assembly floor by the end of the week, after which it could hit Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for his imprimatur.

Here’s a cheat sheet of what you need to know.

Who authored SB 1399?

The bill was co-authored by Assembly members Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), Reginald Jones Sawyer (D-Huntington Park) and Ash Kalra (D-San Jose).

Why is SB 1399 necessary?

In 1999, Assembly Bill 633, authored by then-Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, was enacted with the purpose of preventing wage theft in the garment industry, but some retailers and manufacturers, the co-authors of SB 1399 said, have spent the past 20 years “finding ways to circumvent this law in order to avoid liability,” including creating layers of subcontracting that have allowed them to sidestep the definition of “garment manufacturer” as laid out by AB 633.

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The Garment Worker Protection Act is designed to close this loophole, “restoring the intent” of AB 633 and establishing “upstream liability” so that any contractor of garment production is responsible for wages, damages, penalties and other compensation owed to the workers who make those items “regardless of how many layers of contracting that person may use.”

What else does SB 1399 do?

The bill seeks to broadly eliminate the traditional piece-rate wage structure that pays California garment workers for every hem, cuff or sleeve they seam. If enacted into law, the Garment Worker Protection Act would impose a statutory penalty of $200 against any manufacturer or contractor for each period in which the garment worker is paid by a piece rate, payable to the employee.

“Not only does utilizing the piece rate enable, and even justify, sub-minimum wage, but it also creates unsafe working conditions, as garment workers are forced to constantly work as quickly as possible to complete as many items as possible in a workday,” the co-authors wrote. “Workers paid by a piece rate lose income when they take breaks, and are often reprimanded by their managers for doing so.”

Bottom-scraping piece rates can result in garment workers being paid an average of $5.15, less than the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and well below California’s minimum wage of $13 per hour for businesses with more than 26 employees, even though employers are legally required to make up the difference.

The bill would require employers to pay an hourly wage, allowing piece-rate compensation only as an incentive-based bonus or if it’s specified as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

Whom does SB 1399 benefit?

Downtown Los Angeles houses some 2,000 garment manufacturers, employing more than 45,000 people, according to the Garment Worker Center, a California labor-rights group. Most of the city’s garment workers are immigrant women who spend 10 to 12 hours each day cutting, sewing and dyeing clothing. They’re also likely to be undocumented and ineligible for unemployment benefits or federal stimulus aid.

Does SB 1399 face opposition?

Oh, yes. While some boldface names, like Reformation—and surprisingly, Fashion Nova, which has been dinged in the past for using suppliers that pay workers as little as $2.77 per hour—have backed the bill, 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 already ceded significant business to cheaper overseas labor.

“SB 1399 imposes unfair and onerous burdens on any essential business in the apparel industry, makes significant changes to evidentiary standards for liability, and creates an unfair playing field between union and nonunionized employers,” wrote Jennifer Barrera, executive vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce, in June. “Like all employers, businesses in this industry have suffered from the financial crisis of this pandemic. SB 1399 only worsens that suffering.”

Opponents of the bill say that existing laws need to be better enforced, rather than rewritten, and they fear that the bill will compel retailers to abandon California in favor of manufacturing abroad.

What else?

Labor advocates such as the Garment Worker Center disagree with this bleak prognosis. While other sectors shuttered amid the worsening pandemic, Southern California’s apparel manufacturers were able to pivot to producing masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), demonstrating an agility and resilience that is “fundamental to the local economy and public health.”

“SB 1399 is a timely and relevant policy solution to the problems of wage theft and unsafe workplaces in the garment industry at a time when garment workers are essential to the production of PPE and when consumers demand to know where and how their masks are made,” a coalition of businesses, including Reformation, Fashion Revolution U.S.A., Fibershed and Remake, wrote in a letter to Anthony Rendon, speaker of the California State Assembly, on Tuesday.

“Establishing multilateral accountability across the supply chain through SB 1399 is the only way to ensure workers earn a fair wage in healthy conditions, factories remain competitive and compliant, brands benefit from the value added by labor compliance and California’s businesses embrace their role as leaders in sustainability,” they added.