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Turn Up the Heat on Fairness: American Garment Workers Deserve Better

For millions of American workers across the country, the cool air of the fall season promises to bring relief from intense heat on the job. In California, however, the persistent autumn heat wave brings along with it dangerous wildfires and also dangerous working conditions.

Of the 35 million low-wage workers in the nation, many must contend with the elements of extreme heat in environments such as fields, factories, and construction sites often while earning sub-minimum wages in abusive conditions. And while the worst may be over for 2016, it will return again in 2017.

A soon to be released report by the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles details the sweatshop conditions facing the local garment workforce. Workers, in what is the nation's garment production capitol, describe indoor heat caused by hot, industrial irons and a lack of air-conditioning or other ventilation as unbearable. More than 300 workers were surveyed for the report, many reporting alarming sweatshop conditions.

"In one shop there were 25 pressers and 25 folks who ironed by hand. All in all, there were 50 people ironing. But there was not even one window. You know how long I lasted? Three hours," said a member of the Garment Worker Center who asked to remain anonymous.

The report shows that more than 50 percent of workers reported poor ventilation while 73.5 percent claim an alarming absence of clean drinking water, despite OSHA regulations that mandate drinking water be made available.

In addition, 39 percent of garment workers stated that their workplaces are infested with rats, while 42 percent reported roaches in the workplace. Many also reported that bathrooms are filthy, and no first aid kits are available in a majority of factories.

More than 42 percent of workers reported blocked emergency exits, again despite federal OSHA mandates.  The report reveals a dire reality of unclean, unsafe working conditions for the nation’s largest garment workforce.

Conditions such as these persist because the garment industry is rooted in a lack of corporate responsibility.

More than 45,000 workers form the backbone of Los Angeles' garment industry, a vital production hub for women's apparel for prominent brands such as Forever 21, Charlotte Russe and Ross. To put that in perspective, the number of garment workers in Los Angeles exceeds the population of a small Midwestern city such as Belleville, Illinois.

This remains a major industry for Los Angles and the nation.

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These well-known brands offer customers "fast fashion" described as low-priced, trendy clothing that moves from factory to shelf at unreasonably accelerated paces, sometimes as often as large shipments twice per week.

Garment companies rely on a network of small subcontractors to supply the labor, but routinely pay insufficient prices for the contractors to comply with labor law.  

According to recent wage claims filed by the Garment Worker Center with the California Labor Commission, workers earn an average of $5.17 per hour. These brands avoid direct responsibility by pointing out that they did not directly employ the garment workers.  

Most garment workers are skilled, hardworking immigrants. In Los Angeles, the majority of the garment workforce are Latinos, with a smaller Chinese worker community. Women make up more than 60 percent of the workers, bearing the brunt of the worker abuse.

Los Angeles is not the only hub for such workers. According to a 2014 report on U.S. garment workers by Verite, "garment manufacturing is concentrated in California and New York" with "2002 research showing 1,600 garment manufacturers and 2,600 contractors registered with the New York Department of Labor, with an additional 2,500 unregistered worksites."

Verite reports that Los Angeles garment production was worth $8 billion in 2012. "According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were almost 3,000 registered apparel factories in the Los Angeles area in 2010, and over 1,000 in New York."

With the discussion on the campaign trail by both candidates of fulfilling the promise of American jobs for Americans, it is imperative that we treat those workers with safe and fair conditions.

America’s garment industry is a glaring and shameful example of labor exploitation. While consumers must do more to demand better such as buying union-made and fair trade clothing, the onus is on the garment brands and policy makers to change this industry.

Workers are demanding it.  

Garment Worker Center members last May launched a campaign against Ross for sub-minimum wages in its supplying factories, demanding written agreements to improve both wage and health and safety conditions there.  

They also spearheaded a Lobby Day last month with delegations to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's office, their City Council member, State Labor Commission, and California OSHA to advocate for their proactive attention in ensuring dignified workplaces for the city's garment workers.

These deplorable conditions do not have to be the norm. Garment companies can adopt thriving business models where people who produce their goods, and profits, are respected. And where business fails to be responsible, our local government must step in and effectively enforce labor law and health and safety regulations.

Some experts speculate that the garment industry will be fully automated within a decade. Whether that transpires or not is uncertain. But automation will surely put many American workers out of a job. The best practice would be not to abandon workers, but to respect them by binding corporations to better standards to protect worker rights now and in the future.  

Cooler temperatures are in the air for this year, but without a drastic shift in the garment industry, sweatshops will persist. We must turn up the heat on change. 

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.  Thanks to the author and Truthout for permission to reprint.

Marissa Nuncio is the director of the Garment Worker Center, and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.