Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Sweatshops’

It’s Time to Clean Up the Los Angeles Garment Industry’s Dirty Secret

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Kevin Kish 1On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan. Today, we know our clothes are still often sewn in lethal conditions in foreign factories.  Last year’s disastrous Rana Plaza collapse and a series of deadly factory fires resulted in much hand-wringing over how to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But 103 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we still have our own dirty garment secret, much closer to home.

There are some 5,000 garment manufacturers registered in Los Angeles County where an estimated 50,000 workers make clothes. The true numbers are almost certainly higher since many businesses do not report their employees, pay taxes, or carry insurance. Some L.A. garment factories are safe and decent workplaces where skilled employees make high-end denim, swimwear, and other products for elite brands. But in many others, where clothes are sewn for the “fast fashion” industry, the conditions are similar to those in New York sweatshops over a century ago or to those in Bangladesh today.

Bet Tzedek, the public-interest law firm where I practice, has represented hundreds of L.A. garment workers over the past decade, and their stories are sobering. Workers earn as little as two cents per completed garment. The pay, predictably, falls far below minimum wage, sometimes less than $200 for workweeks of 65 hours or more. Even in factories where breaks are permitted, piece-rate pay encourages workers to stay at their sewing machines for unbroken stretches. Musculoskeletal pain and related health problems are common. Over 100 years after workers were unable to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory because the doors were locked, some of our clients have worked in factories without access to fresh water or functioning bathrooms, where bales of fabric block fire exits, and where owners lock workers in the building during overnight shifts.

Statistics bear out our clients’ testimony. According to research conducted by UCLA, over 90% of garment workers in L.A. experience overtime violations, and more than 60% are not paid minimum wage. The federal Department of Labor (DOL) found violations in 93% of the 1,500 inspections of garment factories it has conducted since 2008.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In January 2000, a landmark law went into effect in California with the intention of eradicating garment sweatshop labor. Before passage of the law, known as AB633, factories that often had no assets other than a few sewing machines would close, move, or reorganize under a different name in response to legal claims, leaving workers empty handed. AB633 established an administrative process in which companies that contract with sweatshops can also be liable for a share of workers’ unpaid wages.

In response, the industry reorganized. Over the past decade, thousands of middleman companies sprang into existence to funnel orders from retailers to factories. These subcontractors create a buffer between workers and the fashion houses that profit from sweatshop conditions. Not coincidentally, this is the same subcontracting structure that now prevails in the garment industry around the world, surprising brands like Walmart and Sears when their production documents are recovered from places like the rubble of Rana Plaza or the ashes of the Tazreen factory.

While we assume that U.S. garment factories are well-regulated, my clients know better: their bosses simply lock the doors to workrooms when potential inspectors are seen approaching. And paying citations is a relatively minor cost of doing business in an industry where the vast majority of workers, many of whom are Asian or Latina immigrant women, are too afraid to file a complaint.

In response to the tragedies in Bangladesh, some companies have entered agreements to inspect and monitor the factories there. Here at home, there is no such movement. When the DOL found garments allegedly destined for Forever 21 stores being sewn by workers in L.A. making less than minimum wage, Forever 21 fought the agency’s subpoena in federal court, arguing that it shouldn’t be forced to disclose sensitive information such as where it makes clothes or what systems it has in place to monitor compliance with the law.

There is little incentive for the law-abiding sector of the industry to get involved. Fashion houses paying fair wages for domestic labor are not competing for the same customers as the companies using sweatshop labor. And organizing a low-wage, immigrant workforce on an industry-wide scale requires investments of time and money that have not been forthcoming.

What else can be done? Paying workers less than minimum wage is theft, and criminal prosecutions of factory owners could cause many to rethink their business models. Aggressive investigations by government agencies could begin to unpeel the layers of subcontracting that protect the reputations of retailers and keep the sweatshop system humming.

The simplest solution would be a law clarifying that retailers are liable to workers who prove they sewed garments sold in stores, regardless of who signed the contract with the factory or how many subcontractors were involved. Such a law would swiftly clean up supply chains. But it would also likely mean fewer inexpensive clothes for shoppers and could send more garment jobs overseas if we aren’t willing to pay more.

The question is whether we want sweatshops in our backyard. It took more than 1200 dead bodies for the Bangladesh agreements to be proposed. What will it take here?

This article was originally printed on CELA Voice on March 25, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kevin Kish is the Director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, in Los Angeles. He leads Bet Tzedek’s employment litigation, policy and outreach initiatives.

The U.S. Government Uses Sweatshops, Too

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Michelle ChenThe collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh last April exposed the cruel link between abusive Global South factories and the Western brands they supply. But while consumers may have been shocked to learn of the Gap or Benetton‘s latest designs strewn amid the wreckage of “death trap” factories, they might have missed another bit of debris: the label of the U.S. government. In fact, much of the clothing churned out by overseas sweatshops is custom-made for Uncle Sam.

In an extensive investigative report, New York Times details how the federal government’s contracts with overseas factories to make uniforms and other apparel are connected to egregious human rights violations, including child labor and union suppression.

A recent audit by labor monitoring authorities found workers as young as 15 at a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that produces clothes to be sold by the Army and Air Force. Some workers spoke to the Times of having to work long shifts without breaks, forcing them to soil themselves while sewing.

The Times also reported evidence of child labor in another Bangladesh factory commissioned to produce Marine Corps shirts. And at yet another facility, this one making clothes for the General Services Administration—which supplies uniforms for more than a dozen federal agencies—beatings of workers were reportedly frequent, as was the often brutal suppression of labor organization. Both facilities lacked proper fire protections.

And in Haiti, a country scarred by the legacy of U.S. military intervention and devastating trade policies, government-supported low-wage garment work underscores the U.S. military’s continued influence over the impoverished island. A local clothing producer, BKI, told the Times it hopes to expand its production of camouflage wear this year thanks to a $30 million contract with a Missouri-based uniform company and the General Services Administration. Meanwhile, the workers inside earn 72 cents per hour on average, which is below Haiti’s minimum wage and “barely covers food and rent.”

Such overseas deals are part of the government’s practice of “procurement,” or contracting with private firms for goods or services. Ultimately, however, whether the buyer is a public agency or a high-fashion retail brand, any trade with the Global South garment industries runs the risk of worker abuses, corporate impunity and rampant exploitation.

Recently, PR-conscious private-sector clothing-makers have made some overtures toward improving labor practices along their supply chains. In Bangladesh, for example, the Rana Plaza collapse and other disasters have prompted about 120 multinational brands, including Adidas and H&M, to shown some willingness to reform their supply chains by signing onto the legally binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. But thus far, few similar improvements have been enacted by the U.S. government.

Following the Rana Plaza disaster, the White House did make the largely symbolic move of temporarily suspending Bangladesh’s trade preferences on some goods. There’s been little action, however, on a more concrete proposal that would target improving military procurement in Bangladesh. According to a recent memo from the office of Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the military “provides little to no oversight of the labor and safety conditions” in its supply chain and has failed to address evidence of labor abuses. One exception is the Marine Corps Trademark and Licensing Office: After the agency’s labels, displaying the slogan “The Few, the Proud,” turned up in the ruins of the deadly 2012 Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh, the Office implemented stronger worker safety provisions for its suppliers that parallel the Bangladesh Accord, as well as child labor restrictions. For the most part, though, Miller’s memo suggests the military contracting system has largely resisted meaningful labor reforms.

In June, Rep. Miller teamed up with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) to propose legislation to compel military exchanges—special military-run sales outlets that share the consumer clothing market with private retailers—to adopt the Bangladesh Accord. Though the proposal wassuccessfully incorporated into the House’s version of the pending military spending bill, it was ultimately left out of the one in the Senate.

And supply-chain labor abuse isn’t limited to Bangladesh alone. In light of this, the advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has urged the federal government to set strict labor standards for overseas procurement in general, with the option of sanctioning contractor firms “if the factories and other high-risk points in the supply chain do not comply with applicable laws and regulations and internationally accepted labor standards.” The ILRF also promotes a more comprehensive monitoring structure that would provide independent oversight that engages workers and unions.

Bjorn Claeson, ILRF senior policy analyst, tells In These Times that the government should take chief responsibility for upholding decent labor standards in industries known for violating workers’ rights through stricter monitoring and investment in better labor conditions.

“The government should expect to pay for products made in decent working conditions, in compliance with all applicable labor standards, by workers who earn a living wage—that is, a fair price,” Claeson says. “In the context of procurement, paying a fair price is the way the government ‘invests’ in compliance.”

Ideally, activists say, the government would retake control of its supply chain from private contractors and give more service jobs to federal employees—thus avoiding outsourcing, and the attendant costs and risks, altogether. This practice, known as “insourcing,” would reverse a longstanding trend toward privatization in the public sector and would likely take considerable political effort.

In the meantime, however, if private clothing companies can be pressured to change their shoddy labor practices, then surely government agencies can pursue a higher standard for factory workers whose everyday struggles make a shameful mockery of “The Few, the Proud.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on January 2, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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