Los Angeles just set the course to boost its minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020. But workers in the city’s garment factories will be lucky if they get paid anything at all.
The city’s mostly Latina garment workforce has long toiled outside the law, with workdays lasting sometimes 10 hours, for as little as four cents per garment—an old-fashioned piece rate that makes it easy for bosses to scrimp on wages. A report by the Garment Workers Center (GWC) of Los Angeles showed that 62 percent of garment workers reported being cheated out of overtime hours because of the piece rate. And 58 percent reported suffering wage theft. Among workers seeking assistance from GWC, average wages were only about $5 per hour.
Factory work grinds their health as well. Many reported being denied needed rest breaks. And the work is viciously exhausting: Roughly half said their factories were poorly ventilated, leaving them vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and exhaustion as they inhale airborne dust and lint. In addition to acute eye and respiratory irritation, other reported problems included widespread lack of safety training and on-site first-aid resources, and sexual harassment. About a third of workers surveyed reported “not having clear access to emergency exits.”
These harsh conditions contrast sharply with the public image of the garment sector, long considered an island of success in a US garment industry devastated by global competition. Though the workforce in LA County has declined from about 80,000 in 2001 to just around 44,000 in 2014, the city serves as a specialized manufacturing hub for designer brands.
Some manufacturers say they fear rising local wages would undermine the LA fashion industry’s “competitive” position, and that factories might relocate in the wake of the minimum-wage hike.
But the $15 minimum-wage floor will make it easier for factory workers’ families to survive LA’s crushing cost of living. According to the Economic Roundtable, the wage raise would affect more than 53,000 light manufacturing workers in the food, garment, and chemical industries. Yet the researchers estimated that raising the wage to $15 would only require “reallocating 4 percent of overall industry revenue”—which suggests that employers’ grumbling about capital flight are little more than empty threats.