Sweatshops and mistreatment are thriving western cities like Los Angeles, California, where labor rights violations are occurring every day. Los Angeles is home to over 50,000 garment workers and is the largest garment manufacturing hub in the United States.
Ayesha Barenblat, raises awareness around these injustices in her recent documentary 'Made In America', a short film which takes you into multiple LA clothing factories, talking to local garment makers and a labour conditions inspector, about what’s really going on behind closed doors. The aim is to highlight various forms of exploitation which garment workers in America have been subjected to for years.
Ayesha explains, “When we think of fast fashion production, the United States might not be the first country to come to mind. However, the truth is that even in America, garment workers are being thrust into vulnerable situations and are being taken advantage of on a daily basis. We thought it was time to look deeply at American manufacturing and push past the smoke and mirrors to see what is really going on in our own backyards.”
Under piece-pay rate, garment workers only receive around $0.3 for each piece they create. This in turn translates to about $5 an hour - which comes out at way below California’s $15 an hour minimum wage.
In addition to this, garment workers are usually paid in cash and rates are set and changed by their employers each week. Today, it’s common industry practice for employers to reduce already promised piece rates. This means that garment workers have no clarity on what their take home pay will be week by week. The piece rate system thus results in hazardous working conditions as garment workers race against the clock to complete as many items as possible for maximum pay. Ayesha explains that they rarely take bathroom breaks and end up taking their work home to get help from their families.
"Garment workers in the USA have long worked in subhuman working conditions," says Ayesha. “You need to know that people, not machines, make your clothing. Start by asking, ‘who made my clothes.’ By keeping in mind the origins of how your clothes are made, you begin to form a connection with the human hands that made them.”
The dangers of producing garments in such conditions have only heightened during Covid-19 as workers have not had time to sanitise work stations or wash their hands, leading to outbreaks inside factories.
“Governments, brands, and factories should address issues in sweatshops, but consumers need to be a part of the movement too,” Ayesha adds, “we all play a part in shifting the industry for the better. The fact is, companies respond to the demands of the consumer, and they will prioritise what the consumer wants. Their every decision revolves around you (the consumer) and your decisions on where you will spend your money. If enough consumers show a great demand for ethical and sustainable products and transparency, it forces companies to take action.”
The Garment Worker Center (GWC) in LA has been working with Remake to transform the fashion industry in order to eliminate sweatshop labour. GWC is currently leading an anti-sweatshop movement across the state to improve conditions for tens of thousands of local garment workers.
On 29th June 2020, the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB1399) was passed by the California Senate with a 5 to 1 vote. "SB1399 is designed by workers, to close loopholes in the law that today result in workers being paid well below the California minimum wage, and for brands like Fashion Nova and Ross to benefit from this wage theft,” explains Ayesha. “This bill will prevent brands and retailers from benefiting from the layers of subcontracting to avoid accountability under law. In addition, the bill will eliminate piece rate, and instead assure that workers are paid California’s minimum wage. The passing of the bill is a major win for garment workers and a game changer for the fashion industry overall.”
The Garment Worker Protection Act will also serve as a powerful piece of legislation for other states, particularly New York, another hub for domestic manufacturing.