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Meet Your American Sweatshops


Happy Labor Day!

This expose of Los Angeles sweatshops routinely stealing workers’ wages and refusing to pay the minimum wage should outrage you and it should also make you understand that much, much more is needed to protect workers in the apparel industry, no matter where they labor.

Before dawn six days a week, Norma Ulloa left the two-bedroom apartment she shared with four family members and boarded a bus that took her to a stifling factory on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles.

She spent 11 hours a day there, pinning Forever 21 tags on trendy little shirts and snipping away their loose threads in the one-room workshop. On a good day, the 44-year-old could get through 700 shirts.

That work earned Ulloa about $6 an hour, well below minimum wage in Los Angeles, according to a wage claim she filed with the state.

Ulloa’s claim is one of nearly 300 filed since 2007 by workers demanding back pay for producing Forever 21 clothing, according to a Los Angeles Times review of nearly 2,000 pages of state labor records.

Sewing factories and wholesale manufacturers have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle those workers’ claims. Forever 21 has not had to pay a cent.

Like other major clothing retailers, Forever 21 avoids paying factory workers’ wage claims through a tangled labyrinth of middlemen that stands between the racks in its stores and the people who sew the clothes.

The company benefits from an 18-year-old state law that was originally intended to stamp out sweatshops but has come up short. The law allowed workers to recoup back wages from their factory boss, and any garment manufacturing company that does business with that person. Forever 21 says it is a retailer, not a manufacturer, and thus is always at least one step removed from Los Angeles factories.

One paradox of that arm’s-length relationship: Forever 21 says it often inspects factories abroad that produce its clothes as part of its “social responsibility to better protect workers,” but it doesn’t do that in Los Angeles. The company said it takes that approach because in California the Department of Labor enforces strict worker protections, whereas there’s no government body that does that for overseas factories.

Now, as retailers across the country face increasingly tough competition from e-commerce, budget brands like Forever 21 are putting more and more pressure on suppliers to keep prices low.

The U.S. Department of Labor investigated 77 Los Angeles garment factories from April through July of 2016 and found that workers were paid as little as $4 and an average of $7 an hour for 10-hour days spent sewing clothes for Forever 21, Ross Dress for Less and TJ Maxx. One worker in West Covina made as little as $3.42 per hour during three weeks of sewing TJ Maxx clothing, according to the Department of Labor.

Those sweatshop wages are the hidden cost of the bargains that make stores like Forever 21 impossible to resist for so many Americans.

Definitely read the whole thing. The problem is more the global system of apparel production than Forever 21 per se or the state of California. As it stands, thanks to the wonderful system of supply chains that serve to protect companies from the consequences of producing their products, as well as a whole raft of legal loopholes, rampant exploitation exists everywhere clothing is produced. And yet because American consumers think that clothing magically appears on the shelf and don’t really care how it gets there, there is almost no political pressure to do anything about it, not only in Vietnam and Guatemala, but in the United States. The death of over 1100 Bangladeshis led to no one in America caring. Neither will stories about wage theft in the United States. It’s enough to make one despair.

On this Labor Day, go ahead and have your BBQ and fun. But also think about concrete ways you can fight to improve the conditions of workers and what we really need to do to make a difference on these issues in a globalized economy. I wrote a book about it, so you could start there I guess.

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