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Garment workers, paid by the piece, say they'll keep fighting to change the system

"In the garment industry, there's a lot of exploitation and a lot of wage theft," said Santa Son, who has worked sewing clothing for over 15 years.
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California garment worker Santa Son had hoped this was the year the state Legislature would end a system that pays her and other workers for the number of items they make — not the hours they work.

Some days, her job is to stitch tags or labels for clothes that carry the proud slogan "Made in America" or "Made in LA."

"Those pay you around 3 cents apiece," said Son, who has worked in the industry for over 15 years.

Son said that under the piece-rate system, she has to work 60 hours to 75 hours a week to earn $300. Although a state law is supposed to ensure that employers make up the difference so workers get paid the minimum wage, the U.S. Labor Department found wage violations in 85 percent of the California garment factories it visited.

"In the garment industry, there's a lot of exploitation and a lot of wage theft," Son said.

Son and many of her peers were advocating for California to pass the Garment Worker Protection Act. It would have ensured hourly pay for workers and closed loopholes that have allowed the state's more than 45,000 mostly immigrant garment workers to be paid an average of $5 an hour.

"The biggest culprits of wage theft in L.A. County are in the garment industry," said state Sen. Maria Durazo, a Democrat from Los Angeles, who introduced the bill in April with Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat representing a San Diego-area district.

The bill died in the Senate, failing to come up for a vote during the final hours of California's legislative session, which adjourned Aug. 31. The session was suspended for two months because the number of Covid-19 cases surged. California legislators meet every two years.

Most of the U.S. garment production industry is in California, where many clothes and, increasingly, fabric masks are cut and sewn every day by garment workers who can work long shifts in often-crowded factories.

In some instances, workers can make well above the minimum wage through the piece-rate system. But advocates for the Garment Worker Protection Act say the rates in the apparel industry are so low that workers rarely make more than $6 an hour. The measure would have allowed for piece-rate compensation in the form of incentive bonuses.

California has raised the minimum wage to $13 an hour, rising to $14 an hour next year and $15 to hour in 2022. But for garment workers, Son said, "if the minimum wage is going up, they don't know about it, since everything is paid by the piece."

'They're risking their lives for us'

Durazo said the pandemic makes it even more important to ensure fair wages and decent working conditions for garment workers.

One of Los Angeles County's largest coronavirus outbreaks this past summer was at a garment factory where 375 L.A. Apparel workers tested positive for Covid-19 and four died.

In a statement, L.A. Apparel said it had "implemented a rigorous safety protocol during the COVID-19 pandemic that exceeded state and county requirements, in addition to providing on-site testing."

Like Son, most of Los Angeles' garment workers are immigrant women, many of whom are undocumented. Durazo said that leaves them ripe for exploitation. The Garment Worker Protection Act would have designated brands and retailers as "brand guarantors," which would be liable for making sure that the people at the very bottom of their supply chains are paid fairly.

Eliminating piece rate a 'job killer,' say opponents

Critics of the measure argued that the bill would have been a huge blow to the state's garment industry, which has relied on the piece-rate system to compete with cheaper foreign labor in Asia and Latin America.

Multiple business groups spoke out against the bill, including the California Retailers Association and the California Fashion Association, which represents brands like L.A. Apparel and Alibaba, as well as law firms that represent brands like Fashion Nova and Forever 21.

The California Chamber of Commerce called the bill a "job killer."

In a statement to NBC News, CalChamber Executive Vice President Jennifer Barrera said the bill "proposed to make significant and unprecedented labor and employment policy changes that would have driven the limited manufacturers and businesses in the apparel industry out of California."

Barrera added that "current law already mandates that all employees receive minimum wage, overtime payment, meal and rest periods, and compliance with health and safety regulations."

Not all in the industry opposed the bill. A handful of companies already pay their workers fair wages, and they supported the bill because they would like to even the playing field. The eco-conscious brand Reformation supported the legislation.

Worker advocates say that apart from ensuring adequate wages, there needs to be a continued focus on working conditions. A 2015 UCLA Labor Center survey of more than 300 garment workers detailed complaints about unsanitary bathroom conditions, blocked doors and exits and excessive dust, heat and poor ventilation.

Planning to 'come back stronger'

Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, said she and her colleagues held a Zoom watch party with garment workers to watch the close of legislative session.

"As they saw it happening, [the garment workers] said: 'They don't care about us. We're not a priority,'" Nuncio said. "The workers were right. There were bills that were prioritized and bills that were not. Ours was not."

Durazo said: "2020 has not been the best year. As we regroup to plan for the upcoming legislative session, our garment worker bill will continue to be a priority — while workers continue to be paid by the piece, they continue earning on average $5 an hour. We will grow our coalition and come back even stronger."

Son said that she was sad but that she and her peers refuse to feel defeated. "We will continue fighting because we want this situation to improve," she said. "These companies will not change on their own."

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