Due to increased global awareness of textile worker’s conditions abroad in Thailand, China, and a collective of other developing nations, most Americans think the clothing that they purchase in the US is above such conditions.
They would be incorrect to assume a “Made in the USA” label meant guaranteed ethics. After all, the Federal Trade Commission’s requirement for adding such labels as “Made in the USA” includes determining the “last country in which a ‘substantial transformation’ took place” (FTC, 1997.), meaning the processes or manufacturing that create a different good than the one existing before these processes. As for advertisement and marketing materials, implications can be made as no origin country is required to be mentioned. Essentially, it’s a very gray area indeed.
The US garment industry can’t possibly be that archaic or third-world, can it?
In fact, it can be. Reminiscent of the 19th century conditions, to make a comparison. The US Department of Labor found a continuation of wage violations in a February 2016 News Release, saying that in the previous five years that they’ve paid workers over 11.7 million dollars back after over 1,000 investigations.
Not that any of these violations are news, this is an old narrative for the garment industry, an industry rife with historically exploited employees. In 2012, a sweep of one building in LA’s garment district garnered a shocking amount of wage violations against the Fair Labor Standards Act. The companies that employed this factory included: “…Aldo Group Inc., Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp., Charlotte Russe Holding Inc., Dillard’s Inc., Forever 21 Inc., Fraisier Clothing Co. (Susan Lawrence), HSN Inc. (Home Shopping Network), Rainbow Apparel Inc., Ross Stores Inc., TJX Cos. Inc. (TJ Maxx and Marshall’s), Urban Outfitters Inc. and Wet Seal Inc.” (WHD News Release, 2012.) The investigators went as far to describe the conditions and violations as “sweatshop-like employment conditions.”
But what does the Wage and Hour Division mean by wage violations? What is the extent of the issue? According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers must be paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour with time and a half for overtime (over the weekly maximum of 40 hours). Employers must keep detailed records and time cards for their employees.
The minimum wage in the state of California is, as of January 2016, $10 per hour. What the Wage and Hour Division discovered in 2012 was a piece rate system, meaning that workers are paid for garments that they cut or sew without following minimum wage requirement. According to the 2012 News Release, workers made less than $6.50 per hour on average. At the time the minimum wage was $8 per hour. Since the WHD has continued to find violations and continues their investigations, it’s safe to assume such piece rate systems are still in place.
Federal investigators also discovered tampered time cards and “under-reporting” of the hours that employees worked. None of the workers received overtime pay, according to this 2012 investigation report.
In the next two years, another News Release revealed yet another slew of violations. That year, 2014, saw 221 investigations of garment industry employers in LA, finding “$3,004,085 in unpaid wages for 1,549 workers.” Coming to about $1,900 per employee, the pay back equalled five times the usual paycheck of sewing machine operator in one week.
WORKERS FIGHTING BACK
Outside of the work that the Wage and Hour Division has and is conducting, the Garment Worker Center focuses on exposing the conditions of garment workers in the LA area, releasing reports and gathering information from the workers themselves.
In their 2016 Health and Safety report, they report that 80% of garment industry workers never received training for their health and safety in the workplace before beginning work. They also report workers were unable to locate first aid services should an accident occur. Garment machinery, hardly safe and complex at times, needs to be well-understood to be operated properly. However, due to the large amount of immigrant workers in this industry, communication is poor and employers fail to communicate training effectively.
Exits are blocked with items or unknown to workers, with poorly lit working spaces. Should an emergency occur, many workers are at a loss for what to do. As for rest breaks or water, there is a shocking deficiency of both.
Both federal organizations along with worker-led groups are making progress in just pay and conditions, but the existence of the continued exploitation of garment workers in the 21st century is shameful in of itself. The fact that it’s a topic of note in the year 2016 in America is one that continues to jar readers, despite all of the information that is available to consumers.
Thankfully it’s the spreading of such information that aids in smart purchasing decisions, with the hands behind the clothing in mind. The issue of immigrant discrimination and exploitation, however complex and deep-rooted, can be abated with the money that we spend on clothing and where we choose to buy. It’s up to consumers to remain informed and use their money as their voice, especially as the holiday buying season ramps up.