While the concept of conscious consumption has made headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic and more shoppers are looking more carefully at where their clothes are coming from, that first step is just the beginning. Garment workers are still faced with inhumane conditions, low wages, and job insecurity — not to mention exposure to the novel coronavirus. People may not be aware that sweatshops do, in fact, operate in the United States. But it doesn't have to be that way.
InStyle's Alyssa Hardy spoke with Marissa Nuncio about the dire situation that many garment workers are facing. Nuncio is the director of the Garment Worker Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that brings together sewing operators, such as trimmers and pressers, to advocate for better wages and working conditions. The GWC focuses on women and women of color and hopes to transform the entire garment industry.
"Unfortunately, the L.A. garment industry is a sweatshop industry," Nuncio said of the current state of affairs in Southern California. She went on to say that on average, a garment worker in Los Angeles — and yes, the conditions are exactly what you'd imagine when you think of a sweatshop — makes roughly $6 an hour, though they're actually paid by piece (think 2 to 8 cents per piece), not for the time worked. The minimum wage in L.A. is currently $15. Tasks include setting a sleeve or hemming a skirt and many workers sew hundreds of pieces per day to try and maximize their income.
"There are blocked emergency exits, it's very cramped, very dirty conditions," Nuncio said of the workers' surroundings, adding that the pandemic has only made things worse, since ventilation has always been an issue in the factories. Social distancing, mask mandates, and basic hygiene are also non-existent in the factories, making for a perfect maelstrom for outbreaks.
"The garment industry has been one of the worst worksites in the country in terms of COVID outbreaks," Nuncio added. "The largest outbreak actually happened in L.A. at a garment company." Sadly, the workers are sometimes making personal protective equipment without having access to it themselves.
Nuncio explained that she and the GWC are working on passing legislation, though she adds that the problem isn't new. Because so many garment workers are immigrant women and women of color, exploitation is rampant.
"Labor is racialized and gendered and exploited along those lines," Nuncio said. Garment workers have organized and fought for rights, she notes, though enforcement is nowhere near where it needs to be, because of a lack of resources. There are simply too many factories to inspect and too many wage claims for things to be enforced in the right way.
"Right now, workers are only able to hold their boss accountable through legal means," Nuncio said of unpaid wages and legal processes. "And they can go one step up in what is often a very long supply chain. They can go one step up where there's a direct contract to a garment manufacturer […] what that leaves is a very wide gap between the workers and the fashion brands producing in Los Angeles."
That means there's little accountability by the fashion brands, Nuncio said. The GWC is working to hold the big brands accountable with the Garment Worker Protection Act and calling labels out for low wages, unpaid hours, and more. They're also trying to get rid of the piece rate entirely, which would get wages higher for all garment workers.
Nuncio and the GWC want shoppers to be more aware of every step that goes into a garment.
"I think the first step is knowing, as consumers, that your voice really matters. It matters to the workers, first and foremost," Nuncio said. "Workers are hoping that the folks that buy the clothes that they make will listen to their demands."
Shoppers may think that buying Made in the USA pieces is enough, but Nuncio says it's not. Real change can't happen until shoppers and workers come together to champion higher wages and better working conditions.
"It's not only enough to buy from an ethical company, it's also important to use your voice when workers say, 'I need you to sign this petition. I need you to call your local representative and support this policy I'm fighting for,'" Nuncio finished. "That goes such a long way."
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