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.
Immigrant and labor advocacy groups began organizing boycotts of L.A.-based clothing lines, including a three-year boycott against retailer Forever 21 Inc. That ended late last year when the company settled a lawsuit by 33 garment workers claiming that they were not paid and were exposed to dirty and dangerous working conditions at local apparel contractors. Forever 21 now outsources all its production overseas.
Pro: Conditions Are Better
The El Monte raid galvanized state and federal authorities, who were tipped off by a letter from the boyfriend of an escaped worker. The result was a crackdown that netted other unregistered operators and numerous violations of labor codes but no other slave labor.
The apparel industry points out that in scores of raids since 1995, comparable instances of forced labor have not been found. They also cited state law AB 633, which passed five years later and makes manufacturers legally liable for the labor law violations of their cut-and-sew contractors. Manufacturers now have so much at stake under the law they are patrolling their own contractors.
Many manufacturers, particularly those with retail operations and valuable brand names, started having third-party monitors inspect the working conditions at the shops of their contractors.
As evidence of improvement, the industry cites a sweep of contractors conducted this month by a newly formed state and federal task force, which it contends found violations far less severe than in past crackdowns.
The task force inspected 105 apparel contractors in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties and closed down 52. But industry officials contend that many of the violations were more technical in nature, such as not having workers compensation or not paying overtime.
Another plus: many non-profit agencies and labor unions have staff members who speak Spanish, Chinese and Korean and thus make it easier for garment workers to report underpayment or poor conditions. The Internet also has helped workers and their advocates to share information, report violators, start boycotts and track contractors with bad reputations.
Con: Little Has Changed
Worker advocates, such as the Garment Worker Center and Sweatshop Watch argue that while AB 633 and federal and state crackdowns have caught violators, there still are many sweatshops out there.
They say the worst are likely operating illegally, without any permits and thus not subject to inspections. They are set up to complete a single contract, have sewers work through the night and close down during the day when most inspections occur.
Even AB 633 has, by some accounts, only dented the problem. A year after it was passed, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that two-thirds of the garment operators in Los Angeles violated minimum wage and overtime laws, illegally withholding $73 million annually in wages. And a 2001 UCLA study concluded that claims filed by workers about sweatshop conditions likely represented only 1 percent of the violations actually occurring at apparel contractors.
As for the task force crackdown that the industry has touted, not all the miscues were minor. A total of 653 health and safety violations were found that included inadequate lighting and ventilation, lack of access to drinking water and clean bathrooms. It also found some padlocked fire exits, a severe violation that has led to tragic workplace fires in the past.
With closed factories eliminating jobs, the result is lower wages and more cut-throat competition for remaining positions. Just last week, garment workers in downtown Los Angeles protested the task force raids, saying that it was costing jobs.
Outlook: More Price Pressure
Like any industry, the worst violations of wage, hour, safety and tax laws are found among a relatively small number of companies. And with L.A.'s fashion industry transformed into a major global center for fashion design there is a growth in higher paying and more skilled jobs. Moreover, continuing inspections by authorities will keep the heat on.
But it is unlikely that sweatshop conditions will disappear. As long as there are huge numbers of immigrants in the region needing jobs many of them undocumented, unable to speak English, and too intimidated to speak out there will likely be some unethical employers willing to exploit them.
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