California lawmakers have passed a watershed bill aimed at closing loopholes that have allowed wage theft and a lack of accountability in the Golden State’s garment sector to flourish.
The Garment Worker Protection Act, also known as Senate Bill 62, cleared the California State Assembly late Wednesday on a 43-12 vote. The bill now heads to the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom, the embattled politician who has until Oct. 10 to sign or veto the bill.
“Current laws have allowed companies to get away with blatant wage theft, and as a result, most garment workers make less than a third of minimum wage,” State Senator María Elena Durazo, who introduced SB 62 in December, wrote on Twitter following the vote. “It’s time brands take accountability for the illegal conditions garment workers are subjected to!”
California’s apparel industry is America’s largest. The bulk of it is concentrated in downtown Los Angeles, where more than 45,000 people—most of them Latino and immigrant women—churn out $5 billion in clothing and footwear every year, according to the Garment Worker Center, a labor advocacy group that is one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
By requiring factories to dole out an hourly wage, the legislation effectively outlaws the traditional piece-rate system that compensates workers for every hem or seam they sew. This scheme, Durazo previously said, has become a “de facto below-minimum wage strategy that’s used by many employers,” with workers receiving an average of $5.15 per hour instead of the legally mandated $13 to $14, depending on company size. On average, workers have $600 “stolen” every week, she said.
Other forms of wage violations are also rife. 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.
SB 62 would also hold so-called “brand guarantors” liable for any wages their suppliers may owe to the people who ultimately make the clothing, no matter how many subcontracting layers stand between them. It’s this provision that has led trade groups such as the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) to label the bill as “well-intentioned” but economically damaging, as well as the California Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business advocacy group, to scorn it as a “job killer” that will drive businesses from the West Coast.
“Although well-intentioned, the bill, as currently written, would, among other things, impose unprecedented joint liability on businesses with no control over garment workers,” Steve Lamar, CEO of the AAFA, wrote in a letter to Newsom dated March 26. “If this provision becomes law, it would drive garment manufacturing out of California and lead to the loss of jobs in California’s garment manufacturing sector, not because companies don’t want to do the right thing, but because there would be [a] heightened risk of being penalized precisely for doing the right thing.”
Garment workers, labor campaigners and a coalition of 150 fashion businesses, including Boyish Jeans, Christy Dawn, Eileen Fisher, Reformation and Saitex, argue, however, that the bill only proposes to uphold the existing legal minimum wage, with brands on the hook only if their supply chain harbored labor abuses to begin with. They also note that similar forms of liability already exist in the janitorial, warehousing and port trucking sectors.
As SB 62’s supporters and opponents butted heads, a compromise was reached absolving brands of any potential damages and penalties from the loss of wages, which were included in the original version of the bill. Still, Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, counts the State Assembly’s decision as a win.
“We’ve fought long and hard to get here, and this bill’s passage is thanks to the effort of garment workers and their dedication to standing up for fair wages,” Nuncio said in a statement. “The legislature listened to their struggles and stories—we hope that Governor Newsom does, too.”
The AAFA and the California Chamber of Commerce did not immediately respond to requests for comment.