The Los Angeles fashion industry has shrunk in recent years, as jobs that involve cutting and sewing have been shipped out to China and other low-wage countries. But the industry remains a big player in the region, and its importance as a design leader has grown as L.A. fashions are bought and imitated the world over.
The question is at what cost?
Ten years ago the industry was embarrassed when a raid on an El Monte sweatshop found 72 illegal Thai immigrants sewing clothing in conditions described as nothing less than slavery.
The discovery prompted a crackdown on the small shops contracted to produce clothing sold by manufacturers such as Guess Inc. and retailers like Gap Inc. It also prompted the passage of a state law in 2000 that makes manufacturers liable for the labor law violations of their contractors.
No other comparable sweat shops turned up, which industry officials cite as proof that conditions were not widespread. Moreover, they maintain that conditions have improved over the past decade.
But industry critics say that the worst of the illegal contractors may have been driven deeper underground. They also note that a state and federal crackdown this year closed 52 shops and that the workers they talk to each day report flagrant violations of the labor code.
Background The Sweatshop History
The images from the El Monte sweatshop are indelible: a non-descript apartment building ringed by barbwire to prevent workers from fleeing. Inside, workers slept 10 to a room. One worker claimed not to have left for seven years.
The raid shocked the public and galvanized the government into action. But it was hardly an aberration: Southern California, like New York, has had a long history of sweat shop conditions in the garment industry.
In 1933, women garment workers went on strike in Los Angeles to protest exploitive conditions, including unsafe, unsanitary, poorly ventilated and crowded conditions. Garment manufacturers flagrantly disregarded California's minimum wage law of $16 per week for women, and companies often falsified records of the hours that dressmakers worked.
Tighter regulations after World War II cleaned up many of the problems, but a wave of new immigration from Mexico, Central America and Asia in the 1980s and 1990s created fertile ground for the problems to crop up again.
Complicating matters is that super-sized retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. continue to push prices down, prompting manufacturers to send production to countries with cheap skilled labor. That has reduced the number of registered cut-and-sew apparel contractors in the Los Angeles region to 36,500 in 2002 from 45,600 in 1997, according to the California Fashion Association. The dwindling number of jobs depressed wages further and now average $3.18 an hour below the minimum wage according to a survey by the non-profit Garment Worker Center.
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