California lawmakers failed to bring the Garment Worker Protection Act up for a vote in time before this year’s legislative session ended. The bill, also known as SB 1399, passed the state senate in June and attempted to protect workers against wage theft in the industry.
Currently, many garment workers in California are paid per piece. The system allows an employer to pay its workers as little as 3¢ for assembly operation of a single garment. Introduced by State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, the bill aimed to set an hourly minimum wage for workers, as well as expand liability to those fashion retailers who commit wage theft, even if contracted through a third party.
According to the Garment Worker Center, Los Angeles has the highest concentration of garment workers in the country. It is estimated that there are 45,000 garment workers in the city that work more than 12 hours a day, 60-70 hours a week. To add insult to injury, their average hourly wage currently is $5.15 — well below minimum wage, which in Los Angeles County is $15. Employers get around regulations by paying their subcontractors per piece sewn, which is estimated to be only $150 a week.
The law already holds manufacturers liable for wage theft, but the entrance of third-party subcontractors has made the detection of wage theft from garment workers even harder to trace. Throughout the years, some retailers and manufacturers have actually spent the last 20 years circumventing liability by subcontracting out work preventing tens of thousands of garment workers in LA County from recovering stolen wages; a loophole in the system.
Garment manufacturers in California have been able to avoid legal infractions by layering contracts between them and employees. They create layers of subcontracting, which allows them to avoid being classified as garment manufacturers and thus evade liability for wage violations. Doing this ultimately created hazardous and sweatshop labored environments, in which the employees hired are subjected to unlivable wages and unworkable conditions.
In a statement for the Los Angeles Times, Durazo said: “As we regroup to plan for the upcoming legislative session, our commitment to garment workers will continue to be a priority, because every day wage theft continues to cheat workers out of their pay and while workers continue to be paid by the piece, they continue to earn on average five dollars an hour.”
On Instagram, the Garment Worker Center wrote about the inaction: “Workers watched the floor session for 3 long days waiting to see the bill they fought so hard to be voted upon. They believed their testimonies of earning as little as 3 cents a face mask, as little as $6/hour wages, amidst life threatening circumstances were enough for #CALeg leaders to understand how urgent this bill was. Over 55 fashion businesses in support hoped for the level playing field SB 1399 ensured. We didn’t get our message through to our elected leaders, however.”
The organization also vowed to keep fighting against labor exploitation, and stressed that they would keep “fight[ing] harder.”