The case marked a key moment in the United States’ history of labor standards, and challenged the idea that sweatshops were a distant practice never found on U.S. shores. Today, sweatshops persist in Los Angeles, where cut-and-sew garment labor represents the second biggest industry in the city, employing over 45,000 people.
With an average hourly rate of $6, Los Angeles’ fashion district is predicated on a vulnerable workforce of largely undocumented immigrants. Workers of this underground economy are often subjected to wage theft, intimidation and poor health and safety conditions.
On the frontlines of fighting against these injustices is the Garment Worker Center (GWC), a workers’ rights group founded in 2001 to organize low-wage garment workers in Los Angeles in the fight for social and economic justice. The GWC was born directly from the El Monte case: After the El Monte workers won their campaign, the coalition established the GWC. Since its inception, the organization has taken a bottom-up approach, actively centering workers as key leadership, making it a movement largely led by women of color.
WHAT FUELS EXPLOITATION?
Unfortunately, ongoing exploitation means that the GWC is as relevant as ever. A Department of Labor investigation in 2016 found that contractors received only 73% of what they need to be able to pay workers minimum wage. The result is that retailers have their garments made cheaply, increasing their profits, while workers receive below minimum wage. According to their regular legal clinics for workers, the GWC has also identified a high frequency of wage theft in factories producing clothes for some of the biggest players in fast fashion, including Forever 21 and Fashion Nova.
These companies rely on the fast turnaround time possible with localized production, which allows them to get clothes made in less than two weeks.
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