No industry is more rife with employment violations than the garment industry. Los Angeles has the highest concentration of garment industry workers in the country. Largely located south and east of downtown, some 2,000 manufacturers employ more than 40,000 people — mostly immigrant women — who spend 10 to 12 hours a day cutting, sewing and dyeing clothing — from designer jeans to “fast fashion” runway knockoffs.
A landmark worker protection law when it was enacted in 1999, Assembly Bill 633 (Steinberg), sought to end wage theft in the garment industry. In the beginning, it did. However, in the 20 years since its passage, retailers and manufacturers have found countless ways to circumvent the law to avoid liability, resulting in thousands of workers in California continuing to be exploited, experiencing wage theft due to subminimum wages, and being unable to recover their stolen wages.
During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, many garment workers have lost their jobs almost overnight. Those who continue to work, many of them making personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent the spread of the disease, have had to endure these working conditions under intensified circumstances presented by the Public Health Emergency. While some of this production is purchased by healthcare systems and companies with frontline workers, some is for fashion brands shifting their merchandise to include masks for individual sale. Just as with apparel production, they are complicit in the exposure of workers to potential infection and the violation of their wage rights; and workers are forced to choose between loss of all wages or potential exposure to the virus.
Even before the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, numerous retailers and manufacturers frustrated AB 633’s original purpose, avoiding liability for systemic abuse by creating layers of subcontracting, enabling retailers and manufacturers to claim that they do not fall under AB 633’s definition of “garment manufacturer,” and are therefore not liable for rampant and egregious wage violations. Until the original intent of AB 633 can be restored, and upstream liability can be established, the unrelenting problem of wage theft in the garment industry will continue.
Adding to this problem is the onerous way in which garment workers are paid – by the piece. Under this pay system, workers earn as low as $.03 per assembly operation (ex, setting a seam, trimming a blouse), which is entirely too low to ever enable a worker to earn the minimum wage per hour. What’s worse, workers often report they do not even know what they will earn from hour to hour and week to week, as rates are set and changed by employers, and it is common for employers to reduce already promised piece rates. Not only does utilizing the piece rate enable – and even justify – sub-minimum wage, but it also creates unsafe working conditions, as garment workers are constantly racing against the clock to complete as many items as possible. The piece rate impedes workers’ ability to take breaks, which would be unpaid under this system, to sanitize workstations or wash their hands, critical hygiene needed to stem the spread of
SB 1399 will strengthen current law to ensure protections of garment worker rights in three ways. It will: 1) expand liability, ensuring that retailers cannot use layers of contracting to avoid liability; 2) prohibit the use of paying garment workers by the “piece,” thereby eliminating a significant obstacle to workers being paid minimum wage and also protecting their health and safety; and 3) explicity authorize the Labor Commissioner’s Bureau of Field Enforcement (BOFE) to investigate and cite guarantors for wage theft.
SB 1399 is relevant and fundamentally needed now more than ever for this important and vulnerable workforce.