Garment workers win historic victory
Daisy Gonzalez’s mother emigrated to California from Guatemala in the 1980s and landed a job as a garment worker. “My mother was a trimmer and an ironer. I learned how difficult this work was for her body from her experience,” Gonalez told Yes magazine. Beyond the difficult conditions, the pay was equally abysmal. Gonzalez recounts her mother once working for a week and the employer paying her just US$30. Her mother’s struggles opened Gonzalez’s eyes to the trenchant problem of “wage theft”, a phenomenon she says is built into the very fabric of the garment industry and its global supply chain.
“Fashion is built on colonial and racist structures,” says Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of Remake, a community of women’s rights, ethical fashion and environmental advocates on a mission to shift the industry away from harming workers and the planet.
In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building on the outskirts of Dhaka in Bangladesh grabbed global headlines. The eight-storey building housed shops and garment factories that produced clothing for many major brands. With a death toll of more than 1,130 workers, the collapse became the deadliest garment industry accident in modern times.
“Rana Plaza was not an accident. This was corporate murder,” says Nazma Akter, a former child garment worker who has since become an internationally acclaimed trade unionist and founder of Awaj Foundation, a group campaigning for the rights of Bangladeshi workers in the apparel supply chain.
Rana Plaza also wasn’t an anomaly. Around the world, garment workers— most of them women, and in some instances girls — have died or been left disabled by a spate of disasters. A year before, Ali Enterprises in Karachi, Pakistan, was destroyed by fire, killing more than 250 workers. H&M, ZARA, and Tommy Hilfiger, among others, have sourced from factories that have seen avoidable fatalities of garment workers due to negligence and wilful complicity.
“How many people will die for fashion, for cheap clothes that end up in landfill anyway?” Barenblat asks. “It is depleting and violent to women’s bodies and the environment.”
A victory in California
In the US, Los Angeles County is the biggest fashion manufacturing hub, where almost 60% of garment workers are women, a majority of them Latino, followed by Asians. The industry runs on the piece-rate system, by which employers pay workers per unit of production instead of an hourly rate or a salary. While the US Department of Labor espouses the federal minimum wage for all hours worked for piece-rate payments as well, it’s not enforced. In Los Angeles, some garment workers have reported earning as little as US$2.68 an hour.
Gonzalez, now a lead member-organiser with the Garment Worker Centre, a worker rights organisation, is leading an anti-sweatshop movement to strengthen the rights of garment workers in Los Angeles. GWC has long campaigned against the wage theft, exploitation and dehumanisation in the fashion industry that has cashed in on the invisible labour of largely immigrant women of colour. GWC was also the driving force behind the Garment Worker Protection Act, a seminal bill passed into law last September, which will hold fashion brands and supply chains accountable for wage theft and will outlaw the per-piece system, paving the way for a real minimum wage for California’s 45,000 garment workers.
“This bill is a first-of-its-kind win in America, and a lot of nonprofits and workers’ groups took note of this incredible victory,” says GWC’s director Marissa Nuncio. “Garment workers have been exploited and failed by the system for far too long, and because of the tireless organising efforts of those workers, the industry will become something California can be proud of.”
Three years in the making, Nuncio adds, “planning for [the bill] began earnestly in 2018. We focused a lot on relationship-building, getting workers trained and ready to lead the campaign.”
“Covid has brought to life what was hidden under the seam: poor wages. There were times I would come out crying with depression. You kill yourself working . . . you leave very tired,” says Ana de los Rios, a member of GWC. Teresa Garcia, another member, says, “We don’t get paid sick days. We don’t get vacations.”
Throughout 2020 and 2021, on the back of covid lockdowns and restrictions, garment workers were being squeezed as dozens of brands refused to pay for clothing orders amounting to billions of dollars, leaving workers — many of them on poverty wages — without pay for their work.
In the spring of 2020, Remake launched the #PayUp campaign with support from GWC. “This was the biggest fashion heist,” Barenblat says. “Garment workers are living paycheck to paycheck, and we had to make sure brands were honouring contracts at the height of the pandemic.” Remake launched a brand tracker and an online petition that generated more than 270,000 signatures. Nearly US$15 billion of the estimated U$40 billion in cancelled orders owed to garment workers was recovered from Gap, Levi’s and other brands.
A year later, as abysmally low wages and debt continued to shatter the lives of garment workers, #PayHer became a rallying hashtag on social media. Models, sustainable fashion influencers, and actresses, such as Amber Valletta and Nathalie Kelley, galvanised their followers to support the campaign to hand over the US$5 billion still owed to workers in unpaid wages and severance. They also campaigned for brands to pay garment workers a liveable wage. Remake joined the campaign as well, garnering support from ethical businesses and mobilising its community of conscious consumers to support GWC’s advocacy on social media.
Though the California Chamber of Commerce slammed the bill as a “job killer” and the American Apparel and Footwear Association claimed it would “impose unprecedented joint liability on businesses with no control over garment workers”, Nuncio believes these groups don’t represent the future of the industry. Rather, GWC and its allies are focusing on building critical relationships with ethical and conscious brands and consumers who care about women’s and labour rights. She thinks this is the direction the industry should be headed.
“This bill was bold, historic, and deeply important for garment workers across the world, as well as people who advocate for them,” Nuncio says. “We took on big-money fashion brands to demand they were accountable for abuse instead of being allowed to hide behind subcontractors.” According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European-based alliance championing the rights of garment workers, subcontracting agreements typically disadvantage garment workers. It notes “workers don’t get a regular contract but a series of short-term contracts or not even that. Forced overtime is common.”
The Californian legislation is energising labour groups in the US and overseas, and GWC members say this is just the beginning. Nuncio notes, “We’ve already had outreach from international garment worker campaigns and other labour groups in America asking us if we can talk more about our strategy, or if we could partner with them on their projects.”
“We are already driving conversations with labor groups in other countries on the implications of [the bill] and the mandatory human rights due diligence efforts in Europe,” Barenblat says. “I hope this harkens a new era of sharpening the focus on brands’ commercial practices, unfair contracts, and downward pressure on prices, which is the root cause for poverty wages and sweatshop conditions.”
The GWC and its allies say they are seeing a slow and palpable shift as ethical consumers become more conscious of what they open their wallets for. Barenblat notes an increase in conversations about degrowth, circular fashion, and increasing the lifecycle of garments. Nuncio hopes this growing interest will translate into direct action to upend the inequities of the industry. “Since more people have heard these stories, they’ll be more in tune to the organising efforts and direct actions that garment workers and ethical fashion advocates create, and they’ll put pressure on the brands themselves.”
In more good news, after mounting international pressure on brands from labour rights groups and ethical business advocates such as the Awaj Foundation and Remake, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was renewed and expanded in August 2021. The new agreement continues the legally binding commitments for workplace safety in Bangladesh and will expand the program to other countries.
TOP Campaign rally, Los Angeles
PHOTO Garment Worker Centre
BOTTOM #PayHer became a rallying hashtag on social media to pressure brands to pay garment workers a liveable wage