21% of LA garment workers have seen physical or verbal violence in the workplace

21% of LA garment workers have seen physical or verbal violence in the workplace

While most allegations of factory worker abuses focus on Asia, an “alarming” number of health and safety violations are also occurring in Los Angeles' garment industry, a new report has found, including physical violence and sexual harassment.

The three month survey carried out by the Garment Worker Center, interviewed 175 workers in Los Angeles County's garment district between June and August 2015. The workforce, the report explains, is largely made up of low-income immigrants who are “routinely exploited, underpaid, and work under sweatshop conditions”.

It found that 21% of garment workers have seen physical or verbal violence in the workplace, and 6% have experienced sexual harassment.

“Fast fashion, the production of rapidly changing fashion trends, means that workers are pushed to produce garments at a quick turnaround rate and at a lower cost,” report authors noted. “The pressure to produce quickly and cheaply creates tension in the workplace where managers and employers demand fast production often through verbal and physical violence.”

With regard to workplace conditions, almost one in three workers reported not having clear access to emergency exits, 22% said their workplace was poorly lit, and around 70% of the workers who indicated dust or lint pollution in their factories said they suffered from eye, nose and throat irritation after working long hours. Additionally, around a quarter of the workers mentioned using some sort of chemical when handling garments.

The Los Angeles apparel industry employs around 45,000, working on notable fashion labels such as Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Papaya, and Wet Seal.

However, the report notes that the number could be higher given that unregistered apparel manufacturers operating in the region without a garment license are excluded from official numbers.

The workforce is largely made up of low-income immigrants who the report says are “routinely exploited, underpaid, and work under sweatshop conditions”. Many it says, experience some of the highest levels of wage theft, which include the illegal withholding of wages and the denial of workplace benefits.

The practice of paying a low piece rate, a form of payment based on the number of garment pieces sewn in one day rather than hours worked, is common, the report found. It explains that, while employers are required by law to guarantee the hourly minimum wage if the piece rate does not meet it, they routinely fail to do so. Based on the wage claims that go through the Garment Worker Center, employees receive an average of $5 per hour.

“Widespread labour violations in the garment industry have partly gone unchecked due to the inadequate enforcement of labour laws. Apparel manufacturers that contract garment workers are notorious for shutting down operations, re-locating, and re-opening their businesses under different names to avoid paying workers their wages. These contractors do so without consequence leaving workers to navigate a cumbersome wage claims process.”

Around 62% of workers indicated working daily overtime hours, but because of the piece rate, many are not paid proper overtime. Around 48% work ten hours or more per day, and almost a third report not being allowed a break when they need one.

“Garment workers must have a say in their working conditions and wages by having the right to negotiate directly with employers, brands and retailers that profit from their work,” the authors note.

The report makes a number of suggestions for improving working conditions in Los Angeles' garment industry, including extending the AB 633 garment legislation to hold big labels and retailers responsible for wage and hour violations.

It also suggests better indoor health standards that protect workers from dust pollution and heat, and cleaner and safer workplaces with access to medical assistance.

There is also a call for the right to collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions, protection for victims of workplace violence, discrimination or harassment, and for brands and retailers to pay a just price per piece for the garments they buy to ensure a living wage.

The Wet Seal declined to comment on the report, while Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, and Papaya did not return a request for comment at the time of going to press.

Earlier this year, a comment on just-style argued that mass-market clothing can’t be made legally (or ethically) in the UK or the US if it’s competing with low-wage production in Asia. Click on the following link to read more: THE FLANARANT: Onshoring has labour compliance challenges too.