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California ‘One Step Closer’ to Respecting Garment Workers’ Rights

California’s Garment Worker Protection Act scored another victory last week as it sailed through the Assembly Judiciary Committee with an 8-to-3 vote.

The vote means the Golden State is “one step closer” to respecting the rights of a workforce that has been “exploited for far too long,” said State Senator María Elena Durazo, who introduced Senate Bill 62 in December.

California’s apparel industry is the largest in the United States. Much of it is concentrated in downtown Los Angeles, which houses some 2,000 garment manufacturers, employs more than 45,000 people and produces $5 billion in clothing and footwear every year, according to the Garment Worker Center, a labor-rights group.

“Many of L.A.’s garment makers work 60 to 70 hours per week while receiving far below state minimum wage—with no breaks,” she said in a statement. “We want L.A.’s fashion industry to be prosperous, but not on the backs and at the expense of hardworking men and women.”

The bill, which seeks to close loopholes that allow wage theft to flourish, has gained the support of more than 140 fashion businesses, including Boyish Jeans, Christy Dawn, Eileen Fisher, Fashion Nova, For Days, Mara Hoffman, Reformation and Saitex.

Garment workers are human beings and deserve to be paid a living wage,” Boyish Jeans, an L.A.-based women’s denim brand that employs better-for-the-planet materials like Tencel and recycled cotton, said in a recent endorsement. “Caring about the people behind the clothes is essential for the fashion industry as a whole because without the garment workers, there would be no garments.”

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One target of the legislation is the traditional piece-rate wage structure, which pays California garment workers per hem, cuff or sleeve they stitch rather than the legal hourly wage of $14 for employers with 26 or more employees and $13 for employers with 25 or fewer employees. The system, 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, even though the Department of Labor mandates that any piece-rate payment must be enough to yield at least the minimum wage per hour.

“They try to say that’s an opportunity for some of these workers to make so much more based on their skill, which is not true,” she said at a press briefing organized by the Garment Worker Center in April. “The workers have no control over what the piece rate is, they’re never [able to] negotiate what the piece rate is, and if they get to do better, it’s at enormous costs to their bodies and health.”

Reformation, which works with 16 finished-goods factories in L.A. alongside its own facility in the downtown area, said it’s committed to advocating for “fair labor and environmental justice throughout our supply chain.” SB 62, it said in an endorsement, is “in line with Reformation’s ethos, centering sustainability and dignity for the people that make our clothes.”

But the bill has its opponents, the biggest of which is the American Apparel & Footwear Association, which recently told Governor Gavin Newsom that while it “strongly supports” the protection of labor rights for all workers in the apparel and footwear industry, it opposes discrete elements of SB 62, which it described as “well-intentioned” but economically damaging.

The Washington, D.C.-based trade group, which represents 1,000 household-name brands, including Adidas, Gap and J.Crew, is especially leery of the so-called “brand guarantor” provision, which holds both the garment manufacturer and the contractors of garment production jointly liable for wages, damages, penalties and other compensation owed to the people who make those items.

“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 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.”

Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, previously told Sourcing Journal, however, that many of the AAFA’s claims are inaccurate and “this type of liability is not unprecedented,” since it exists in other industry groups such as janitorial, warehousing and port trucking.

“We also know from Department of Labor studies that it is not true that ‘brand guarantors’ have no control over the factories that supply them but instead the contract prices they set for their garment orders have a tremendous impact on the factory’s ability to comply with wage requirements,” she said.

For Isabel Castro, who has labored as a garment worker for the past three decades, the contrast between the pittance workers earn and the profits brands reap could not be starker. Fashion businesses, she said, must take responsibility because “it has been proven that they do not pay enough [to factories] for the work for us to earn better. They make millions because they pay us pennies!”

She urged Assembly Appropriations Committee members, who will vote on SB 62 before it opens to the full Assembly Floor, to help scupper piece-rate pay and “hold brands accountable for wage theft. . . on behalf of myself and my colleagues.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened the exploitation workers face, even as they dedicated themselves to producing life-saving personal protective equipment such as face masks and gowns without the guarantee of a livable wage, said Manuela Boucher-de la Cadena, legislative advocate at the California Labor Federation.

“SB 62 will ensure that garment workers are granted the protections they so rightly deserve, including fair wages, and will hold manufacturers and retail brands accountable for their role in the abuses garment workers suffer daily,” she said. “We urge the legislature to protect garment workers throughout the state as they have dedicated themselves to helping protect us throughout the pandemic, and thank those members who have stood up in support of this bill.”