On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Garment Worker Protection Act into law, legislation that makes California the first state to pay garment workers hourly wages.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the industry norm is to pay workers per item of clothing they produce, which has resulted in fewer than a third of garment workers in the LA area earning minimum wage. Under that pay structure, known as the piece-rate system, workers might earn mere cents for sewing a seam or collar. Many are paid off the books, the LA Times reports, and make around $3 or $4 an hour, without any overtime pay or health insurance. And because they are incentivized to work quickly, both worksite accidents and chronic conditions among the workers are common.
Immigrant women are typically the ones earning these perilously low wages, as they comprise a significant portion of the more than 45,000 garment workers in the state. California state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, the Democrat who introduced the bill, said she saw their work conditions firsthand as a garment worker labor organizer in the ’80s.
“I spent my time in those shops,” Durazo told the LA Times. “Back then, wage theft was not the business model. But today it is.” According to Durazo, California’s garment industry owes workers more than $7 million in stolen wages. “If they don’t get paid what they are owed, those workers can’t pay their rent, can’t feed their families, and that all comes back to the rest of us,” she said.
In the last decade, fast fashion brands like Forever21 and Charlotte Russe as well as big department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom have been among those exposed for using sub-minimum wage labor in LA factories to produce their clothing. In 2019, the New York Times exposed Fashion Nova for paying LA workers as little as $2.77 an hour; the company owed some $4 million in back wages.
Under the new legislation, retailers in California could be liable for any exploitative labor used in the production of their garments, which they often blame on contractors “surreptitiously subcontract[ing]” their orders, the LA Times reports. “They hire the contractors,” Durazo said. “They should be held responsible.”