As Americans, we’ve been primed to believe that “made in the USA” is synonymous with “ethically made.” We think that sweatshops only exist in developing countries. But the truth is that sweatshops exist in the US as well.
In this post, I want to talk about how this is even possible, and what we can do to help. I also have a YouTube video version, in case you’re a more visual or auditory learner.
This post contains affiliate links, meaning that I earn a small commission on any purchases made, at no extra cost to you.
What Are Sweatshops?
First, let’s define “sweatshops.” According to the US Department of Labor, a “sweatshop” is a “factory that violates 2 or more labor laws.” Sweatshops usually have the following characteristics:
- Unsafe working conditions
- Unfair pay
- Excessive hours
- Child labor
- Lack of worker benefits
We usually associate the word “sweatshop” with developing countries (which is definitely problematic that we take advantage of people in poverty and keep them in this endless cycle of poverty, but that’s a topic in itself).
Sweatshops do exist elsewhere though, including the US and Italy. In the US, there’s a particularly high concentration of sweatshops in Los Angeles, California, which is home to 50,000 garment workers who are mainly women and immigrants.
The Department of Labor found that 85% of these factories were in violation of the law. Garment workers are paid subminimum wage, overworked, and sometimes even abused.
Overview of Piece Rate Pay
How is any of this possible? Garment workers are often paid a piece rate instead of being paid hourly. Piece rate pay means you get paid per item or per task. You might get 50 cents for a t-shirt, or 5 cents for a zipper, for example.
In theory, a piece rate system can lead to greater productivity and higher wages. In theory, companies that pay a piece rate also need to match minimum wage. But none of this is happening here.
Instead, garment workers are being paid an average of $5.15 an hour when the California minimum wage is currently $12, and sometimes even higher in certain counties. The workers also regularly work 12 hours per day and 60-70 hours per week.
Even worse, many of the workers can’t advocate for themselves, as they don’t might not speak English. It’s estimated that 50% of the garment workers are undocumented, so they have no legal rights either.
Remake, a sustainable fashion platform, created a documentary called “Made in America” around this issue, and the worker they interviewed said she was making $125 a week, and was getting paid less than other people, but she couldn’t communicate with the others and didn’t know she was getting cheated for a long time.
It’s clear that many garment workers are being exploited, but there’s luckily current legislation that will hopefully improve their working conditions.
Photo by Wallace Chuck on Pexels
How the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB62) Can Help
The Garment Worker Protection Act was introduced in February 2020 by State Senator María Elena Durazo. This bill would eliminate the piece rate system and also hold retailers accountable for garment worker wages.
Currently, there’s a loophole in California regulations, as brands are considered “retailers” and not “manufacturers,” so they’re not liable for the wages and benefits of garment workers. Brands like Forever 21 and Fashion Nova have purposely fabricated several layers of subcontracting to avoid liability.
The Garment Worker Protection act would close this loophole and make retailers responsible for the wages of all the workers in their supply chain.
This bill is sponsored by the Garment Worker Center, a worker’s rights organization campaigning to end sweatshops in LA. Garment workers themselves are also leading the movement to get this bill passed.
Opposition to the Garment Worker Protection Act
There’s been opposition to this bill by several business groups and law firms that represent brands like Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Alibaba, and L.A. Apparel. The California Chamber of Commerce even called the bill a “job killer.”
They do raise an important concern, however. For the American garment industry to stay competitive with overseas markets, the cost of production, including wages, has to remain low. That’s just the unfortunate reality. California garment workers face terrible conditions currently, but they may lose their jobs altogether if the piece rate system is eliminated.
So doing nothing is bad, but passing the bill could also be bad.
All of this just illustrates the need for an international trade agreement that protects workers’ rights and prioritizes environmental causes. Other countries are able to offer such low-cost labor because they pay their workers poorly (or not at all), prohibit unionizing, skimp out on factory safety, and don’t adhere to any environmental standards. A trade agreement could at least level the playing field a bit and prevent a shift of jobs overseas.
There are actually several fashion brands that support the Garment Worker Protection Act for this very reason. Brands that already follow regulations and manufacture ethically want the bill to be passed because it could level the playing field for them. Again, the only reason fast fashion is so cheap is because workers are exploited. If they’re no longer exploited, prices will have to rise (if companies are unwilling to absorb the extra cost), and there’s less of an incentive to buy fast fashion. This could increase demand and opportunity for ethical fashion.
What We Can Do to Eliminate Sweatshops in the US
Basically the whole situation is very nuanced, but I think the Garment Worker Protection Act is a step in the right direction, as what’s currently happening is illegal, and people are suffering. We need to at least send the message that this is unacceptable.
The bill unfortunately died in assembly in fall 2020, but the garment workers are pushing to have it reintroduced and passed this year. If you’re living in the US, there’s a petition you can sign to show your support for the bill. UPDATE: The bill passed in assembly and was signed into law on September 27, 2021!
Otherwise, we can also try to avoid these unethical brands and support better ones, if that’s in our means. Some of the top offenders of wage theft in California are Fashion Nova, Forever 21, Windsor, Charlotte Russe, Harley Davidson, Urban Outfitters, and Lulu’s.
If you’re looking for better brands made in the US, some are Groceries Apparel, Miakoda, Harvest & Mill, and MATE the Label. I also have some other brand suggestions in my sustainable brand directory. Some of these are pretty pricey, so definitely don’t feel bad if you can’t afford these brands. It’s more important to practice mindful consumption and only buy what you need, regardless of what brand it is. Thrifting is also a cheaper way to put money back into local communities, especially if you shop at local stores supporting good causes.
I know this post was pretty gloomy, but I think it’s important to talk about these issues so that we can push for change. Please sign that petition if you can, and share this information with others. I have a TikTok version of this info, in case it’s easier to share.
If you liked this post and want to support me, please feel free to share the link or buy me a virtual coffee. I’d truly appreciate it!
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