Why LA Garment Workers Want To Put An End To The Piece-Rate SystemBy Geana Sieburger |
We redistribute 3% of our online sales to support organizations that protect civil rights, empower marginalized groups, and protect the environment.
From April 1 - June 30, 3% of online purchases will be redistributed to the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, CA. The Garment Worker Center is a worker rights organization leading an anti-sweatshop movement to improve conditions for tens of thousands of Los Angeles garment workers. Through direct organizing, GWC develops leaders who demand enforcement of strong labor laws and accountability from factory owners, manufacturers, and fashion brands. They center immigrant workers, women of color, and their families who are impacted by exploitation in the fashion industry.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Nayantara recently and am so excited to share this eye-opening conversation with the GDS community. Let's jump right in!
Geana: I'd love to hear a little bit about you and what your role is at the Garment Workers Center.
Nayantara: Sure! My name is Nayantara Banerjee. I am working in industry research and strategic partnerships for the Garment Workers Center. I've been in this position only since last Fall (2020) but I have a history with GWC that goes back to early 2017.
I volunteered with the Garment Workers Center for a couple of years and through most of 2020 was actually a consultant. I was brought on to help grow sustainable fashion business support for our most current and biggest campaign, which is for SB62, the Garment Worker Protection Act. It's an amendment to the law that we are pushing right now through the California legislature.
Geana: Can you tell us a bit more about the work that GWC does?
Nayantara: GWC focuses most importantly on worker organizing and developing their leadership in the anti-sweatshop movement in California. We do that through direct actions, demanding brand accountability, policy, and through worker-led organizing.
For example, we just wrapped a 4-plus year campaign against Ross, Dress For Less, the big brand retailer that we all know. Garment workers who are members of GWC were producing garments at a sub-contractor that were sold exclusively at Ross. They were being paid through the piece-rate system and were earning pennies at a time for every operation that they did.
On average, garment workers who are paid piece-rate are earning a third of the minimum wage. And, within our center, we have a Wage Justice Clinic where we also support garment workers to bring wage sub-claims through the Labor Commissioner's office.
Through this data, we found garment workers are earning on average $5.85 an hour in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, minimum wage for employers with 25 or fewer employees is $14.25 an hour, and it goes from there. So what garment workers earn is far less than the minimum wage.
We need more [factories] to not be falling victim to the fashion system that continues to be exploitative and perpetuates the imbalance between garment workers and their employers, between their employers and the brands.
Geana: Can you tell us what piece-rate is exactly? Many may have never heard of this.
Nayantara: Members who are producing garments for Ross, for example, we're paid through what's called the piece-rate system. In the piece-rate system, garment workers are paid per piece on which they work. So if they're making a shirt and they're producing in the traditional kind of sweatshop factory, they are going to be making maybe five cents per shoulder seam, for example.
And so, in order to make anything resembling a semi-decent take-home-pay, garment workers find that they have to work on hundreds of garments a day in order to make a total of $100 for that day. They have to work well over eight hours a day, sometimes they're working 10 to 12 hours a day.
They're working at a pace that is unsustainable. It's physically tolling, and now, with the coronavirus, it's even life-threatening because this productivity rate disincentives garment workers from sanitizing their workstations, from taking breaks to wash their hands, and taking general safety precautions.
But, even without the pandemic and the coronavirus concerns, it's a health hazard. Garment workers are not given the kind of protections and general considerations that we think of as standard at workplaces. For instance, it’s common for them to have to bring their own toilet paper. There are often cockroaches and rats in the factories. The air isn’t well filtered. It's very hot in Los Angeles, especially in these older buildings that house a lot of factories and contractors. So the piece-rate system is utilized to exploit garment workers and this system doesn't allow employers to provide basic necessities.
Employers know that they should be paying a fair wage, but the piece-rate system has created a loophole for brands and manufacturers to avoid paying the fair wages. And the system–the fashion industry across the world–is built on these exploitative models.
So when a brand like Ross purchases a volume of goods from a contractor with whom they have a relationship, they are paying a price per garment that does not translate to what garment workers would need in order to be paid minimum wage.
They're paying a price per garment that can only be achieved if the garment workers are paid a sub-minimum wage. A lot of our cases are against particularly powerful fast fashion companies that operate here. We've had Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Charlotte Russe, Windsor, and Urban Outfitters. They are some of the top violators, and they utilize loopholes in the law to avoid accountability when wage theft claims come up. That is why we are now pursuing a law to change the way things work.
There are over 45,000 garment workers in Los Angeles, that's the highest concentration of garment workers in the US. That's skilled labor. We also have these thousands of facilities in California. All of this is near the Asian Pacific rim and we have the Twin Ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach. There's a real opportunity for California to be the leader in sustainable fashion and sustainable garment manufacturing.
Geana: Do you have a sense of how many of the factories are operating under the piece-rate system?
Nayantara: At this time, it’s more prevalent than not, but it’s not straightforward either. Our members may aspire to get the “good jobs” at Los Angeles Apparel, for example, because Los Angeles Apparel publicly pays $15 an hour. But last year, at the height of the pandemic, Los Angeles Apparel was where almost 400 garment workers were exposed to the coronavirus. At least four of those garment workers died.
We're not trying to put anyone out of business. We want there to be more places so that not every garment worker wants to work at LA Apparel, for instance, where it’s not that safe. We need there to be many factories. There are thousands of factories. When I look at the Department of Industrial Relations–they collect all the information from California garment manufacturers that maintain their registration–there are thousands of them. We need more of those to not be falling victim to the fashion system that continues to be exploitative and perpetuates the imbalance between garment workers and their employers, between their employers and the brands. There's a real opportunity for California to be the leader in sustainable fashion and sustainable garment manufacturing.
There are over 45,000 garment workers in Los Angeles, that's the highest concentration of garment workers in the US. That's skilled labor. We also have these thousands of facilities in California. All of this is near the Asian Pacific rim and we have the Twin Ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach.
There's a lot of built in distribution networks in California, and Los Angeles in particular is very well-suited for being home to a strong, beautiful, fashion industry that can work for everyone. But we need folks to have that vision. And we need for it to be worker-led because that's really the way that we're going to get to true sustainability.
Geana: Yes, I agree. You mentioned that in LA there's a huge population of garment workers, the largest concentration in the United States. There was a time when it was on the East Coast, in New York City and that's not the case anymore.
Nayantara: No. Yeah, New York has far fewer garment workers.
Geana: What would you like to leave GDS customers and readers with? How could they support the Garment Workers Center?
Nayantara: We would love for anyone to sign the petition of support for the Garment Worker Protection Act. Any individual anywhere in the world can actually support this bill because garments that are made in California are sold throughout the country and throughout the world.
And if you are a business owner in the fashion industry, we would love for you to endorse the petition. If you have questions, you can always reach out to me directly. My email is Nayantara@garmentworkercenter.org.
We really have an amazing roster of business support for the bill. We have over 130 businesses in support of the bill so far. We have some really wonderful big leaders of the industry, Reformation, Eileen Fisher, Mara Hoffman, Christy Dawn, and would love to add more!
We have a fund for our garment workers who have lost work due to the pandemic. Initially the garment industry was not considered essential, and was shut down when the initial lockdown happened a little over a year ago. But it quickly became evidence that garment workers are needed to make masks, PPE for hospital workers, like gowns, caps, you know. And so garments workers were then considered essential and yet they were given no protection, no safety net.
There are a lot of garment workers who did lose their jobs or haven't returned to work because they didn't want to take the risk of going to the factory knowing that their health would be at stake. They have not been able to get some of those benefits, like the stimulus or unemployment because of a variety of issues. Maybe the nature of the way they're employed informally, or maybe their immigration status.
So if folks have the stimulus and have a little extra share, we would love for you to donate it to the Garment Workers Center and it will go directly to our members, garment workers.