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Behind ‘Fast Fashion’ Brands Are Underpaid Garment Workers in Sweatshop Conditions

10:42 AM PST on December 12, 2018

[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]ured by the promise of a restaurant job paying $1,000 a month, Yeni Dewi travelled to the United States on a tourist visa in 2013. Once here, she was forced to work as domestic help at a house in Sherman Oaks. She was made to work for around 18 hours daily and received only $200 every 35 to 38 days. She managed to escape after a couple of years and has been a garment worker ever since. The pay isn’t that much better.

Currently Dewi works at a garment manufacturing factory near the intersection of Wall Street and 8th Street on the outskirts of the Fashion District. Dewi said that the factory is a supplier for Fashion Nova. But Dewi earns around $300 to $350 per month even though she works at least 40 hours every week.

This is because garment workers don’t get paid by the hour, they get paid per alteration.

“I don’t like the situation, but I have no other choice,” said Dewi, who has a daughter here, and a son who lives back home in Indonesia with Dewi's mother.

According to a report by CIT Group Inc. and the California Fashion Association, the fashion industry in Los Angeles generates at least $18 billion in revenue. However, behind the world of mass-produced garments from fast-fashion brands like Zara, Forever 21, and Fashion Nova, lies an underbelly of exploited workers receiving less than minimum wage and working in sweatshop conditions in cities around the world.

Yeni Dewi says she makes less than $5 an hour making garments in the Fashion District. Photo by Shirsho Dasgupta.

Below Minimum Wage

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he minimum wage in Los Angeles is presently $12 or $13.25 an hour, depending on the size of the business. According to the first quarterly report of 2018 of the California Employment Development Department, the hourly median wage of a worker in the garment and textile industry was $11.81. Despite state law mandating that all garment workers must be paid at least the minimum wage, many allege that they don’t even get half of the designated amount.

“We are earning like $5 an hour right now, when every year it [the minimum wage] rises up to $12, $13, and so on,” Dewi said. “In L.A, the minimum wage rises every year, but the piece rate never rises.”

According to the piece rate, each garment worker is paid around 70 cents for each “operation” like stitching the sleeves to the main body of a dress or joining the two sides of a shirt. Dewi said that the total amount earned by a worker for every piece of garment they work on depends mostly on the style but generally comes to around $2 per dress.

Mariella Martinez of the Garment Worker Center said that part of the reason that garment workers receive such low wages is that the big, sometimes multinational, brands that the factories supply refuse to increase their prices. This puts the onus solely on the owners of the factories to pay decent wages. The owners in turn are often unwilling to cut into their own profits. They also have to compete with manufacturing plants in Asia or Central or South America, where labor is cheaper and labor laws are not as stringent.

'Many of the factories operate illegally in garages, sheds, or abandoned properties.'

“If it is $15 an hour [for labor] in the United States and in California, that is a day’s labor in Mexico and two days’ labor in China,” said Ilse Metchek, the president of the California Fashion Association.

The Association – which deals with, in Metchek’s words, “the voice of the industry, the business of the business” – was formed in 1995 in the aftermath of the El Monte Slavery Case.  Metchek said that manufacturing has decreased in Los Angeles and will keep on decreasing over the years. The industry however is still huge. In 2016, Business Wire found that wholesalers in the industry added roughly 1,500 jobs each year.

In 2016, researchers from UCLA studied the wage claims processed through the Garment Workers Center and found that they earn an average of $5.15 an hour. Despite a state legislation that holds manufacturers liable for wage and hour violations in the garment manufacturing industry, there is also little governmental oversight.

Many of the factories operate illegally in garages, sheds, or abandoned properties, Dewi said. They also do not provide health benefits, holidays, or insurance. And workers often have to work in subpar conditions.

Dewi has worked in factories where there were no lunch breaks, and the workers there had to bring their own clean water and toilet paper, she said.

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Virgilda Romero says her employers made her catch and kill rats in addition to her duties as a garment worker in South Central. Photo by Shirsho Dasgupta.

Sweatshop Conditions

[dropcap size=big]V[/dropcap]irgilda Romero, another garment worker faced similar, and sometimes even worse conditions.

“I worked at a factory between Broadway and Main streets on Adams where things were really bad. They would make me do a lot of the cleaning. So I would be in charge of cleaning the bathrooms, and also like catching killing the rodents. So I would deal with like rat pee falling on me and things like that,” she said. “I wouldn't work sometimes on Sundays and they would leave the trash over, so there would be like maggots in the trash and things like that.”

Romero arrived in the United States from Guatemala in 2001. She has worked in the garment manufacturing industry for more than 16 years. The first factory she worked at paid only 5 cents a piece.

She has also worked in places where the employers would pressurize her to work faster and not allow her to take any breaks. There have been times when she worked for 11 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, and sometimes even on Sundays, to make a decent living.

'I would deal with like rat pee falling on me and things like that.'

Romero said that she now works as a trimmer and checker and that her present employer was much better and pays her around $470 for six-day weeks. Even then, when she informed her boss that she would be unable to work for some days due to a surgery, she got very upset and said, “'You're going to miss work again. You better get healthy quick so that you can come back to work as soon as possible.'”

“I was very nervous because I’ve been taking these medications that make me have to go to the bathroom a lot because of the surgery. I was kind of scared the whole time that she would get angry for taking so many restroom breaks,” Romero said.

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Yeni Dewi works to support her daughter and a son back home in Indonesia. Photo by Shirsho Dasgupta.

Immigrant Labor

According to the California Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71 percent of the garment workers are immigrants, mostly Latin Americans and Asians. While both Romero now has valid work permit, many of the workers are undocumented immigrants. Some, like Dewi, are victims of human trafficking.

The owners of the factories easily take advantage of their workers because they know that they are in precarious positions and will be too scared to go to the authorities to file wage claims or complaints about work conditions, Martinez said. Many are simply not aware that even though they are undocumented, they still enjoy certain rights.

For instance, Dewi did not speak English or Spanish when she first arrived in the United States. She was also not aware that she had certain rights as a victim of human trafficking. She was hiding both from her traffickers and also immigration authorities. Dewi was scared that if she went to the police, they would arrest her for not possessing any documents. 

'When I was working for my traffickers, they only paid me $200.'

Dewi didn't even realize that the garment factories too were short-changing her.

“When I was working for my traffickers, they only paid me $200 [per month] and I didn’t get any holidays. In the garment industry, I got like $200 or $150 a week, and I thought it was good,” Dewi said. It was only after lawyers with the Garment Workers Center made her aware of her rights did she realize how low her wages were.

Dewi’s documentation is being processed and she hopes she will soon be able to apply for a green card and bring her son to Los Angeles.

As a member of the Garment Workers’ Center, Dewi often helps them with their campaigns. She said that the first step to improve the industry is to abolish the piece rate.

“The first thing we are gonna to do is get minimum wage for the workers and then everything else, step-by-step,” Dewi said. “We are gonna ask for health and safety and everything else.”

The reporting for this story was completed as coursework in the Journalism M.S. Program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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