From Monday to Saturday, Los Angeles garment workers come to shabby factories or old warehouses to produce clothes for some of the world's largest fashion brands. They work in cramped, cramped rooms full of cockroaches, mice, or mouse droppings. Emergency exits are sometimes blocked, and some workers reported that they were locked in factory rooms when inspectors visited, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown order.
Sofia Garcia Palomares, 53, works in a boutique selling handmade clothing under similar conditions. "They didn't give us toilet paper or water, we had to eat in a dirty restaurant," Palomares said.
Despite working 10 hours a day, many garment workers like Palomares still earn less than the minimum wage until now. Palomares explained that sometimes she can make $20 a day, and sometimes she can make $40 a day.
But a new California law, Senate Bill 62, the Clothing Worker Protection Act, should bring Palomares and other workers, many of whom are Catholics, wage uniformity.
The law will end piece rate wages, which is a practice of paying workers by the number of pieces rather than by the hour. Piece rate wages can result in workers earning as low as $5 per hour.
Earlier this fall, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the law-the first such law in the country.
GWC Director Marissa Nuncio will start our press conference to celebrate the passage of #GarmentWorkerProtectionAct. We are outside the Los Angeles Textile Exhibition to highlight the industry-leading efforts made by garment workers to fight for their rights! The live link in the reply. pic.twitter.com/5AL0TYqPag
"SB 62 aims to solve one of the main problems that workers face every day: wage theft. When workers are not paid correctly, their families suffer," Marissa Nuncio, director of the Los Angeles Garment Workers Center Tell NCR.
She explained that this law will be the first law in the country to allow "upstream liability", and garment workers can contact people at the top of the supply chain and make them legally responsible for their actions.
Before SB 62, fashion brands held all bargaining power. Many fashion companies subcontract their work, making it difficult for clothing workers to interact with the company and request works. Nuncio said that fashion brands often sign contracts with the lowest bidder, creating a "race to the bottom."
Olivia, who asked not to reveal her surname, has been a garment worker for 16 years. Her daily work includes overlock sewing, operating multi-needle machines, ironing and packaging. The new law means a lot to tailors like her.
"I can now work at a minimum wage like most people in Los Angeles," she said, adding that she hopes that SB 62 will give people a deeper understanding of how clothes are made.
"Every piece of clothing and every piece of clothing you see is made by people who also eat and need to live a decent life," she said.
The ability of workers to negotiate fairer wages may also offer the possibility of improving disgraceful working conditions, such as insufficient light, no running water, or very limited bathroom breaks. Many workers were also verbally abused by their bosses.
In addition, fabric fibers are usually covered with chemicals, making them easier to run through machines, but workers inhaling these chemicals often cause respiratory diseases, Nuncio said.
When asked what gave her the courage to support SB 62, Palomares mentioned her Catholic faith.
"When we were fighting for this, I asked God to enter the governor's heart and sign the law," she said.
The bill also aims to help women of color and immigrant women, who are often exploited for wage theft in the apparel industry.
The lead author of SB 62, State Senator María Elena Durazo, and the lead co-author of the bill, Congresswoman Lorena Gonzalez, all stated that their Catholic faith inspired them to fight for labor and union justice.
Gonzalez met with the garment workers and visited the garment workers center. She met with advocates and the press, and communicated with the governor's office to ensure that the bill was passed.
I am proud to stand with my colleague and sister @SenMariaEDurazo, because the governor signed #SB62 into law today! All the garment workers who bravely talked about the serious wage theft in the industry have achieved great victories. Major fashion brands will no longer evade paying poor wages! pic.twitter.com/v90aQvzUC0
"She is especially driven when other people are treated less, discriminated against, and given fewer issues-women who don't have the resources to buy diapers for their babies, people without access to health care, and previously imprisoned, especially immigrants and the working poor ," Durazo said of Gonzalez.
Gonzalez "trying to practice our beliefs and justice issues," Durazo said.
Other Catholic labor leaders said they admire the work of Durasso and Gonzalez—especially because so many Americans don’t know where their clothes are made and believe that sweatshops are just an overseas problem.
“The movement for women of color led by women of color is touching,” said Nuncio of the Garment Workers Center.
"There is no doubt that they [the author of SB 62] are absolute workers' rights advocates," she said. "They are centered on the demands of the workers in this movement. It's nice to know that we are fighting the same way on the same page."
Victor Naro of the UCLA Labor Center said Gonzalez "has unity at heart."
"For Lorena, there is no such thing as unskilled labor," he said.
Melissa Cedillo is a researcher for the Latino Catholic Project at NCR. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enter your email address to receive free newsletters from NCR.
Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here
Copyright © National Catholic Journalist Press | 115 E. Armor Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 | 1-800-444-8910