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Jenny D. moved to California in 2012 on a tourist visa, intending to take a job as a domestic worker. Her employer, who brought her from Malaysia, promised to pay her $1,000 a month. Instead, Jenny (whose name has been changed because of her immigration status) was made to clean both her employer’s home and office and received $200 every 35 to 38 days. Frustrated with these conditions, she ran away to Los Angeles.
Jenny now operates a coverstitch machine making yoga clothes in a factory in Los Angeles. She has been employed as a garment worker for almost four years, working 55-hour weeks from Monday through Saturday. She earns $400 a week, an improvement from before, albeit well below California’s minimum wage of $10.50 an hour.
Marcela Vazquez, another undocumented garment worker, earns even less as a sewing operator, making dresses and blouses in Los Angeles. Originally from Mexico, she has lived in the United States for a little over 20 years. While her weekly income varies, she explained through a translator, Zacil Pech, that “this week I was able to earn $120. However, I go in at 7:30 a.m. and I come out at 5:30 p.m.”
Advocates say that undocumented workers in Los Angeles’ garment-manufacturing industry like Jenny and Vazquez are particularly vulnerable to unfair wages, as well as poor health and safety conditions. Fear of deportation — often exploited by their employers — prevents workers from unionizing or reporting violations. To make matters worse, some say that fast-fashion brands capitalize on this in exchange for cheap, quick production.
According to a report called “Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories” from the Garment Worker Center, the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, and UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health, there are about 45,000 garment workers in Los Angeles. Sixty percent of the workforce are women, and 71 percent are foreign born. While the number of undocumented workers within the garment industry itself is unclear, Marissa Nuncio, the director at Los Angeles’s Garment Worker Center, says that anecdotally, they know that a majority of the workforce is undocumented.
Pech, herself an organizer at the Garment Worker Center, says that the reason the number of undocumented workers in the garment industry is so high is because it is one of the first to absorb newly arrived immigrants to the United States, acting as their initial stepping stone to the larger job market. Moreover, as “Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories” explains, the industry itself depends on LA’s immigrant workforce as it “supplies the needed low-wage labor that allows trendy fast fashion to thrive.”
Indeed, these workers often make far below the state’s minimum wage. A 2016 Department of Labor investigation found that garment workers in Southern California received an average of $7 an hour, and as low as $4 an hour. The Garment Worker Center assists Los Angeles workers with wage claims, and based on those claims, the Center has learned that workers earn an average of $5.15 an hour. Work days can last from eight to 11 hours, six days a week, says Pech.
“Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories” argues that these low wages are a consequence of the industry’s piece rate system, where workers are paid for each unit they produce rather than with a salaried wage. It explains that this system pressures workers to work as fast as they can to maximize their pay. “Although the piece rate is promoted as an incentive for workers to earn more by working quickly, it has in fact created new opportunities for wage theft,” it reads.
Vazquez, for example, has earned anywhere from 10 cents to 45 cents for each piece. “Right now because I’m making a blouse that has a lot of different things that we have to do… they pay us 36 cents to finish it all,” she explains. This wage is “not enough to cover my living expenses. I would like to earn more. I’m not even earning the minimum wage.”
While federal and state laws require that employers using the piece rate system must provide a total pay that is equal to or above minimum wage, “Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories” explains that this does not happen. If a worker manages to reach minimum wage, it says, employers will lower the piece rate to avoid paying that wage.
This piece rate has physical effects, too, argues “Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories.” “Studies have shown that workers who are paid a piece rate are injured at work more often than those who receive a set salary, as they take more risks and fewer breaks to augment low wages,” the report reads. “Predictably, piece rate workers have higher rates of long-term musculoskeletal disorder and severe disability than those with salary pay.”
Vazquez has indeed felt the strains of this system. When asked if the piece rate encourages her to work quickly, she replied that “I wouldn’t necessarily call it encouragement. For me, it’s more of a necessity.” Because she is a single mother, “I have to hurry to be able to make enough to feed myself and my children.” Jenny explains, similarly, that her job makes her “so tired and so stressed.”
Experts say that workers must also endure a working environment that does not meet health and safety standards. “Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories” found that 60 percent of workers “reported that excessive heat and dust accumulation was due to poor ventilation that rendered it difficult to work, and even to breathe.” Jenny agreed, telling Racked that in the summer, the factory is very hot. “[It’s] crazy. We’re sweating like [we’re in a] shower because it’s too hot.”
Moreover, Nuncio says that more than 40 percent of factories have blocked exits, while more than 80 percent of workers say they work without training. Over 40 percent of workers also reported rats and roaches, she says. “They’ve reported things such as puncture wounds and burns, and a lack of first aid kits or any system in which to treat themselves if they’re injured on the job.”
The bathrooms are also often very dirty, says Nuncio. “Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories” explains that 47 percent of workers surveyed described “soiled and unmaintained” bathrooms. Jenny told Racked that they do not even have toilet paper. “We need to pay by self for toilet paper. They don’t put it.”
So-called “fast fashion” is inherently tied to substandard working conditions. In this approach to manufacturing, garments move “from design to shelf at an accelerated pace, producing clothing for stores demanding low-priced, trendy styles as often as twice a week,” reads “Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories.” Buyers are at fault in this system, too. “Consumer tastes and demands for closets full of cheap, disposable clothes feed into the fast-fashion production cycle.”
Rather than planning seasons in advance, brands are introducing new styles and products every few weeks, explains Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications at the International Labor Rights Forum. This method has consequences. Take Forever 21. “The way that they keep up with these new styles and constantly changing images is by forcing the factories to have really short turnaround times.”
The effects of a short turnaround time ripples down from brands to factory managers to workers, says Sarah Newell, campaigns associate at the International Labor Rights Forum. According to her, it forces factory managers to ask for higher quotas from workers or compel them to work overtime. “The cycle of repeated short turnaround orders leads to an inability to plan reasonable workloads and staffing levels, and creates a perpetual sense of urgency in the factories,” she says. “Constantly working at breakneck speed to churn out new inventory leaves little space for workers to assert their legal rights in the workplace, or to address violations of those rights.”
In part, this is why the garment industry has remained in Los Angeles, Foxvog argues. Not only can factories rely on underpaid, non-unionized, undocumented workforces, but they can also ship things quickly, she says. “When a brand wants quick turnaround on relatively small orders... having a factory in Los Angeles is useful because they are saving on shipping time.”
The industry’s global structure — perpetuated by well-known brands — contributes to these substandard working conditions as well, Foxvog says. “Most brands and retailers don’t own or operate any factories and don’t directly employ garment workers but instead subcontract and outsource to factories around the world,” she explains. On top of that, brands are using more than a thousand factories, and sourcing from several dozen countries.
This means that unionization and other fights for better working conditions can be repressed through threats of closing the factory, Foxvog argues. Factory owners can tell workers that if they unionize, prices will rise, brands will stop buying from this factory, and eventually sourcing and buying will move to another factory, she explains.
Foxvog says that this distance allows brands turn a blind eye to unfair conditions, but despite this remove, brands are sending an implicit message of approval. “When a brand buyer comes into the factory, they say this is how much I will offer for every T-shirt, for every pair of jeans,” she says. “There’s always a negotiation on what’s the piece rate that’s going to be paid to the factory.” She explains that if a factory owner responds that the workers want higher wages, better safety equipment, or a union, and they therefore need a higher piece rate, the brand can always say that they have several other factory options, and this is the best price they can offer. “If these factories want to stay in business then they do accept these low piece rates from the brands, which in turn means that the factories have limited funds to work with.”
In addition to threatening to close or a move a factory, factory owners can also make threats based on a worker’s immigration status, say experts. Laura Huizar, a staff attorney who works on labor enforcement issues at the National Employment Law Project, explains that there are labor laws in several states, including California, that penalize employers who fire a worker complaining about working conditions. California goes one step further in expressly prohibiting employers from threatening deportation if a worker complains. Unfortunately, “it is the fear before filing a complaint — and during and after — of having an employer retaliate that keeps a lot of workers from reporting a violation.” Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit dedicated to the fair treatment of workers, similarly states that “undocumented workers who try to stand up for their rights routinely face physical and immigration-related threats and retaliation.”
Vazquez, for example, explained how her employers scare workers when the Labor Commission visits the factory by incorrectly telling workers they are from immigration or they tell workers not to talk to them. Vazquez can tell the difference now given her past experience with ICE. “One of them comes with regular clothes, folders, and maybe a badge, while the other ones come equipped with vests and jackets.”
Even when a complaint is made, enforcement is inadequate, says Nuncio. “OSHA has limited resources and they pick and choose the complaints that they respond to.” That means that factories know that they may not get inspected or fined. “It becomes this entrenched practice of not following the law.”
Lucas Brown, an information officer at the California Department of Industrial Relations (of which Cal/OSHA is a division of) explained over email that “in California, all workers are protected by the state’s workplace safety and health regulations, regardless of immigration status.” He explained that in Cal/OSHA’s User’s Guide, complaints are broken down to two different categories — formal complaints and informal complaints. All formal complaints are inspected in person, but informal complaints can additionally be inspected via phone, fax, or letter. Furthermore, Erika Monterroza, the deputy director of communications for the California Department of Industrial Relations, denies that Cal/OSHA picks and chooses which complaints they respond to. When Racked brought up the fact that some complaints are treated differently than others, she explained that “that’s actually laid out as part of the Labor Code and in writing. That’s not picking and choosing. That’s handling some cases as formal complaints and others as non-formal.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Department of Labor report found that Ross Dress for Less, Forever 21, and T.J. Maxx had connections to the companies with the most offenses.
The Department of Labor declined to provide a comment for this article.
Ross’s corporate spokesperson provided a statement expressing its commitment to labor rights. The statement read in part, “Ross Stores takes labor compliance and violations very seriously. We require that all vendors agree to uphold our ethical standards and abide by all applicable federal, state, local, and international labor laws. We work with the Department of Labor who enforces wage and labor laws as they relate to garment manufacturers and their subcontractors.” When pressed about Ross’s role in low wages and poor conditions, they did not respond.
Forever 21 said similarly that “Forever 21 takes these issues very seriously and requires all of its vendors to comply with federal and local minimum wage and record-keeping laws. We have a strict vetting process when we first start business with new vendors, and this includes visits to, and review of, the factories and the workforce. While Forever 21 does not own or operate any third party vendors or contractors, it is our policy and practice to not purchase merchandise from any companies who violate the law. Importantly, Forever 21 condemns any third party vendor that violates these laws, and takes appropriate action to encourage independent vendors to improve compliance, in order to promote appropriate working conditions for their employees.”
When asked for further clarification on the degree by which Forever 21 directly contributes to substandard working conditions and wages as well as how it mitigates them, Forever 21 replied “Forever 21 has met with the Department of Labor (DOL) on multiple occasions to discuss creative solutions to the issues raised. The Company supports the DOL’s ongoing enforcement actions against unscrupulous sewing contractors who keep the payments made by retailers for themselves and break the law by failing to pay their workers a fair wage. Forever 21 fully supports the DOL’s efforts to enforce applicable labor laws. Importantly, Forever 21 applauds the DOL’s efforts in targeting the alleged business practices of third party vendors, and their selected independent contractors, as well as any orders that provide restitution to the affected workers.”
T.J. Maxx also explained that “T.J. Maxx operates our business with high standards of ethics, which are reflected in our Vendor Code of Conduct. Our Code requires that each of our vendors act in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations when manufacturing products to be sold to us. Our Code also expressly requires our vendors to pay the legally prescribed minimum wage or the prevailing industry wage, whichever is higher, and our vendors must ensure that all subcontractors they use comply with these same requirements.” When asked about how T.J. Maxx contributes to low wages and poor conditions as well as how they help alleviate these conditions, the brand simply repeated a portion of its original statement.
Despite these assurances from brands, experts say that it seems unlikely that conditions will improve for workers in the face of aggressive immigration policies from the Trump administration. As Foxvog explains, there is “no indication of exploitative conditions in LA’s garment industry improving any time soon given the current crackdown on undocumented workers in this country and the looming crackdown on workers rights more generally.” As Huizar explains, Trump’s plans to increase immigration enforcement has created a lot of fear. “Workers are more scared than ever, I think, to come forward and report violations.”
Nuncio said similarly that while conditions at factories are the same, she has seen a shift in the climate. She has heard from workers that they are staying under the radar because of increased news of people being picked up by ICE when they are checking in on immigration cases. In addition, she is fearful of increased site raids by ICE at factories, and also expressed concern over the administration’s executive orders, which broadened its definition of criminals for deportation purposes.
Jenny confirmed these concerns, explaining that while ICE has never shown up at her place of work, the election of Donald Trump has caused a lot of fear. Vazquez also said that undocumented workers were already afraid, but since the inauguration, these worries have increased. “I have three children here, and although they are already of age, I’m still afraid [of deportation] because we have no other family.”
For Vazquez, Jenny, and the advocates that fight for them, it remains to be seen when — or if — their working conditions will improve. Until then, they can just keep fighting for the rights that all workers, regardless of immigration status, are owed.