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LA garment industry rife with sweatshop conditions

New study reveals almost half the garment workers labor 10 hours or more a day without overtime pay

LOS ANGELES — A new report on the health and safety conditions of garment workers in Los Angeles may give pause to shoppers who buy garments “Made in the USA,” in an attempt to avoid participating in the exploitation of workers in foreign sweatshops.

A survey of garment workers in Los Angeles by the Garment Worker Center found an alarming number of health, safety and wage violations in the garment industry that employs an estimated 45,000 in Los Angeles County.

“What this report is really doing is breaking away from the concept that because clothes are made in the U.S.A. that they’re not made in sweat shops,” said Mar Martinez, organizing coordinator of the Garment Worker Center, a non-profit organization. “There are violations of basic rights of a clean, safe environment. There is no clean drinking water in a lot of factories.”

The majority of garment workers in Los Angeles, one of the world’s fashion centers, are Latinos and most are undocumented. About 20 percent are Asian, mostly Chinese immigrants, Martinez said. None are unionized.

The survey of 175 garment workers was taken from June to August 2015. The report is scheduled for release Wednesday.

The latest study on the state of the Los Angeles garment industry found that 21 percent of workers have experienced physical or verbal violence on the job and 6 percent reported sexual harassment in the workplace. Half complained of poor ventilation, and eye and nose irritation from chemicals. A third of the workers surveyed reported a lack of clean drinking water at work and almost a third said they are not allowed to take rest breaks.

The survey found that almost 40 percent of the garment workers saw rodents or cockroaches in their workplace, 80 percent received no health and safety training, and nearly half had no access to first aid at work.

Almost half work 10 hours or more a day but are not paid overtime, according to the report. They get a low piece rate instead meaning their pay is based on the number of garment pieces sewn in a day, not the number of hours worked.

“Garment workers who experience wage theft receive an average of $5 an hour,” Martinez said. “A lot of these shops don’t even have clocking in. There’s a huge record-keeping problem in the garment industry. It’s almost as if these folks don’t exist.”

According to a report by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, 994 apparel and textiles companies earned more than $1 million in revenue in 2011. The Los Angeles fashion industry is dominated by smaller-sized companies managed by owner-operators.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. In Los Angeles, where the minimum is now at $9 an hour, the City Council in June voted to increase the minimum pay to $15 by 2020.

A time study by the California Department of Labor found that a shirt made in the U.S. should cost the retailer $9 wholesale if manufacturers abided to minimum wage and other labor requirements. Instead, retailers were paying an average of only $1.70, reflecting a dramatic underpayment of workers if the manufacturers could still make a profit at the lower wholesale price.

Workers who filed wage claims were getting paid $1.90 an hour for their work, Martinez said.

“These are the places where workers are exploited the most,” said Zacil Pech, health and safety organizer at the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, adding the working conditions of garment workers in New York, the nation’s other fashion capital, mirror those found in Los Angeles.

A 2014 study by Verité, an international non-profit training, consulting and research group, said the garment industry is ripe for “conditions that allow for the exploitation of undocumented workers.”

It called on brands to conduct “social assessments to determine where these risks are present in their supply chains and to come to grips with the conditions faced by workers in specific supplier factories” and points to the need for immigration reform to resolve the problem.

“We want to make L.A. a sweat shop free fashion capital to set an example for the rest of the world,” Martinez said. Pech echoed her sentiments, saying “There are hundreds of factories where workers are forced to work in inhumane conditions. We want to make sure there are changes."


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