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California Garment Worker Act Signed Into Law: ‘Ethical Fashion Is the Future’

California Governor Gavin Newsom got the state’s closely watched garment worker bill across the finish line.

On Monday, the Golden State governor signed into law the Garment Worker Protection Act, also known as Senate Bill 62.

“California is holding corporations accountable and recognizing the dignity and humanity of our workers, who have helped build the fifth-largest economy in the world,” said Gov. Newsom, who recently survived a contentious recall vote. “These measures protect marginalized low-wage workers, many of whom are women of color and immigrants, ensuring they are paid what they are due and improving workplace conditions. We are committed to having their backs as we work to build a stronger, more inclusive economy.”

The news comes after the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution last week in support of the anti-wage theft legislation, according to the Garment Worker Center (GWC), a labor advocacy group lobbying on the legislation’s behalf.

On Friday, seven of the council’s members followed up the resolution by sending a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom urging him to sign the act. The California State Assembly passed the legislation on a 43-12 vote earlier this month, and gave Gov. Newsom until Oct. 10 to sign or veto it.

“The widespread prevalence of workplace violations in the garment industry has broad effects that go well beyond the immediate impact on the workers who are directly affected,” the letter stated. “When low-wage garment workers and their families struggle in poverty and face constant economic insecurity, local communities suffer.”

Los Angeles is home to roughly 45,000 garment workers, a majority of whom make below the state’s minimum wage, the GWC said. A 2016 report published by the GWC, UCLA Labor Center and UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program estimated California garment workers earn an average of $5.15 per hour. When the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division investigated 77 randomly selected garment contractors in Southern California between 2015 and 2016, it discovered that 85 percent of them owed $1.3 million in back wages to 865 workers.

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SB 62 largely bans the piece-rate payment scheme that enabled these low wages to persist. The prohibition does not apply to workplaces where employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that provides for premium overtime wages and regular wages of no less than 30 percent more than the state minimum wage.

“Los Angeles is the heart of the garment industry in California. A majority of California’s garment workers live and work in this city, and the impacts of egregious wage theft are felt intimately here,” GWC director Marissa Nuncio said in a statement. “We’re so grateful that the City Council came out in such strong support of SB 62.”

She added on Monday that Gov. Newsom’s “bold action” will impact the lives of tens of thousands of workers. “We have seen how firmly he stands for the dignity and humanity of garment workers in the past, and by signing this bill, he is upholding his commitment to them and to all Californians who deserve to be paid for their work. Garment workers have been exploited and failed by the system for far too long, and because of the tireless organizing efforts of those workers and the bold action that Governor Newsom took today, the industry will become something California can be proud of.”

Though a host of businesses have voiced their approval for the prospective law—including Reformation, Saitex and Boyish Jeans—certain trade groups remain adamantly opposed due to a provision that would hold brands liable for any wages their suppliers may owe workers. They argue the additional requirements will lead companies to leave California, decreasing the demand and workforce of the state’s garment manufacturers.

The California Chamber of Commerce, for example, has labeled the bill a “job killer.” On Wednesday, it published an article written by its own Ashley Hoffman urging Gov. Newsom to veto the bill.

“The CalChamber is urging Governor Gavin Newsom to veto SB 62 because it will put employers in the garment industry—already suffering from the financial crisis of the pandemic—out of business or force them to move operations outside of California,” the policy advocate wrote. “The retailers and licensors that will be liable under this bill simply will not take on the liability risk imposed by SB 62 and will not allow clothing to be made in California.”

The American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) has also voiced its disapproval, dubbing the bill “well-intentioned” but economically damaging.

A coalition of brands, producers and social advocacy groups pushed back on criticism of SB 62—in particular, the California Chamber of Commerce’s “job killer” designation. In an open letter published in late July, the group argued that wage theft is actually deterring businesses “who want to set up shop in California, but are concerned about its atrocious labor track record.”

Senator María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), the force behind the SB 62, declared the new law a crucial step toward “justice for garment workers.”

“For too long, bad-actor manufacturers have exploited garment workers toiling in unsanitary conditions for as little as $5 an hour,” she said in a statement Monday. “I applaud Governor Newsom for signing this important legislation to safeguard legal wages and dignified working conditions for this highly-skilled workforce and level the playing field for ethical manufacturers that are doing the right thing.”

With stronger protections in place for California’s cut-and-saw talent, “ethical fashion is the future,” she added.

Though “there is so much work to do to ensure that garment workers are treated fairly,” Nuncio said, “this is a day to celebrate garment workers and celebrate how, once again, California is leading the way.”

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.