To understand the fact that sweatshops exist even in Los Angeles, one must understand the apparel industry system. And to understand the system, one must understand the players, so I will introduce you to the players from the top down.
The Top of the System
At the very top of the system are both the customer and the retailer. These two entities battle for control of the other, and create an interesting situation. The customer is you and me, and the retailer is the company that attempts to convince you and me that we need their clothing more than any other retailersâ€™ clothing, and that we need a huge variety of it. In order for the retailer to further its existence, it must ensure that the customer continues purchasing goods. The retailerâ€™s side of the battle is attempting to convince the customer that they donâ€™t just need clothes, but that they always need new clothes and new styles. This then means that the retailer has to keep up with the new demands in clothing styles, and produce enough new goods to satisfy the customer. They try and curb the unpredictability of this venture by becoming leading fashion experts that the customer will look to when thinking about what type of new clothes they want.
On the side of the customer, there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The fact that less and less people are able to afford the expensive, specialty clothes puts a larger strain on the retailers to reduce the price of their clothing. Customers want the best deal and are always looking for the next big sale. If retailers fail to provide the level of clothing for the price of their competing retailers, they will lose customers and go out of business.
The advent of the large retail stores like Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target has also added extra strain on the apparel industry. They all have their own designerâ€™s labels that they sell in store for only a portion of the price of most of these higher class specialty retailers. All of these factors force the retailers to find the cheapest possible mode of producing high quality clothes. This is where the pressure starts for sweatshops, from the customers and the retailers.
The next level down from the customers and retailers is the manufacturers, or what were called the â€˜jobbersâ€™ in the early 20th century. Jobbers is probably a more appropriate term for what they actually do, because they are normally not actually physically manufacturing the clothes. The manufacturers are normally the creative genius behind the whole operation. They are the ones that design the clothes, put their brand names on the clothes, purchase the textiles, and find contractors who are actually in charge of doing the work. Although there are some manufacturers that also have retail stores, Guess? being one of the biggest of these, they normally provide the clothes wholesale to the retailers. In the apparel industry the manufacturers are attempting to compete with other manufacturers with prices, and so have to squeeze the contractors for as much money as possible. There are relatively few large manufacturers, and therefore they are becoming increasingly powerful with the ability to push down the amount that they pay the contractors. If the contractors ever complain, the manufacturer can threaten them by saying that someone down the street will do the same job for quite a bit cheaper. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which removes tariffs from goods produced in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) made this a very real threat. Companies can now move to Mexico or Guatemala and produce the same goods for a fraction of the price. And since the companies no longer have to pay tariffs on these goods, it is almost the same as them being produced in the U.S.
This brings us to the next level in production: the contractors. The contractors are the ones that actually hire the workers to produce the clothes. They pay piece rate, which means that they do not pay an hourly wage, but instead pay depending on how much a worker completes each hour. This practice is legal as long as the workers make at least minimum wage regardless of how much work they have done. Often, however, the amount they pay per piece would make it impossible for the worker to complete enough to receive $6.75 each hour. A case in point for this is that when the minimum wage was raised in Los Angeles, a lot of contractors raised the quota that the workers had to complete rather than raising the amount they paid for each completed piece. But again, the contractors are not really in a position to raise wages. They have to pay overhead, which includes rent and the sewing machines, and they also have to be paid themselves.
A contractor friend of mine by the name of Samuel has a shop in the Fashion District of LA. He is originally from El Salvador, and came out here to live with his sister and help her with her contracting business. He complained about how the manufacturer barely paid him enough for each article of clothing to cover the cost of rent, much less to pay the workers properly.
The final level, and those who actually produce the clothes, is the workers. They are at the very bottom of this system, and have absolutely no bargaining power. If the contractors have almost no bargaining power, the workers have nothing. They are normally immigrants that are attempting to get a foothold in the American dream, and so have to do any work they can. There is a steady influx of immigrants, which is one of the reasons that the contractors are able pay so little and still have workers. At the beginning of the 20th century, an immigrant starting as a garment worker had a viable chance of gaining a foothold, and perhaps setting the stage for at least their children becoming middle class citizens. This is not true today for the majority of immigrants, for a number of reasons that go far beyond just the apparel industry. Quite a few of the Italian and Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century found their foothold through the apparel industry, but rarely are the Latin American immigrants so fortunate, in general they lack the basic necessities to gain a foothold, such as education. Although there have been recent cases where immigrants have risen through the ranks, they are in general South Korean and have prior experience in the Apparel Industry as well as college education.
One of the worst case scenarios in regards to the sweatshop issue is the El Monte crackdown that happened back in August of 1995. 71 workers were held against their will at a gated community in El Monte. They were forced to work up to 18 hours a day and paid only $2 an hour, because the bosses claimed that they owed them a debt. It had been going on for 7 years, and the worst part is that they were producing clothes for major manufacturers. Montgomery Ward, Mervyn's, Bum International, L.F. Sportswear, Miller's Outpost, F-40, Ms. Tops, Topson Downs, Beniko, and Balmara, amongst others, were all companies that were having clothes made at the El Monte slave labor site.
I have heard the argument many times that sweatshops, as bad as they are, provide people with a job. If these sweatshops did not exist, then those people would have nothing to do and absolutely no income. However, this argument is most likely said from people who do not have friends who work in sweatshops. People who say this probably do not see the faces of the women and men who work in these sweatshops. The faces that gradually lose hope with time as they realize that they have to spend their entire lives working just to pay bills, with nothing to save for themselves or their children. These faces that show desperation as they attempt to work enough to save their children from the same fate that has befallen them. Sometimes they even have their children help them in order to make that extra money for rent. The fact that it gives people jobs that have nowhere else to go is undeniable, and it is generally better than their lives were in their own countries. But this does not relieve the responsibility of at least paying the minimum wage, and preferably a living wage to these workers.
Does it have to be this way?
The reason that I am so skeptical about the industry is because I have seen examples where it does not work the same way. There is a company called American Apparel which was started up by a man named Dov Charney. This is an apparel manufacturing company, but it does not contract out. Everything is done in one factory that is located in downtown Los Angeles. The workers there are still paid piece rate, but their hourly wage is on average twice the minimum wage with it never falling below $8 an hour. They are also provided with subsidized lunches, health care, paid time off to take English classes, and free massages; perks that are unheard of in the apparel industry. Most likely, manufacturers would say that attempting anything close to what Dov has done is a surefire road to bankruptcy, and yet that is anything but what has happened to American Apparel. The company has opened 53 retail outlet stores in five countries in the past 3 years that it has been open, and is now a $250 million a year company. It is a clear example that people do not have to be exploited, even in the apparel industry, for a company to â€œmake it.â€ The trouble is that there is only one American Apparel, and the vast majority of manufacturers and retailers are still working in the same system.
To find out more about sweatshops in LA, and what companies are not using sweatshops, visit: http://www.sweatshopwatch.org/. It has links to companies that are sweat free (you wonâ€™t recognize a lot of names there though.)
For more information about the structure of the Apparel Industry and what can be done: (the ones with the *s have been most helpful to me).
Bacon, David. 2004. The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border. University of California Press.
*Bonacich, Edna and Richard Appelbaum. 2000. Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry. University of California Press.
Chang, Grace and Mimi Abramovitz. 2000. Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy. Consortium Book Sales.
Ching Yoon Louie, Miriam. 2001. Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take On the Global Factory. South End Press.
*Ehrenreich, Barbara. 2001. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Metropolitan Books.
Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. 2001. DomÃ©stica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence. University of California Press.
Rosen, Ellen Israel. 2002. Making Sweatshops. University of California Press.
*Ross, Robert J.S. 2004. Slaves to Fashion. University of California Press.
Sainz, Perez and Juan Pablo. 1999. From the Finca to the Maquila: Labor and Capitalist Development in Central America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
Shaw, Randy. 1999. Reclaiming America: Nike, Clean Air, and the New National Activism. University of California Press.
Waldinger, Roger and Michael I. Lichter. 2003. How the Other Half Works: Immigration and the Social Organization of Labor. University of California Press.
Sweatshops in L.A.
To understand the fact that sweatshops exist even in Los Angeles, one must understand the apparel industry system. And to understand the system, one must understand the players, so I will introduce yo
Copyright © 2010 Rowan