Most of us don’t think twice about buying a $7 T-shirt. That’s a big bargain. But is it a good deal? Probably not for the workers who earned pennies to make it. You may think that a “Made In America” label means “Not Made In a Sweatshop,” but the reality of fast-fashion manufacturing in the U.S. might shock you.
The garment workers of Los Angeles, which is the capital of the American clothing-manufacturing industry, are grossly underpaid — we’re talking wages as low as $3.80 an hour
. If that’s not enough to give you pause, then take into account that it’s not just hurting the workers.
Nearly every working parent
struggles to find and pay for day care. But for the garment workers in L.A who sew clothes for some of your favorite brands, quality child care is a distant dream. These women (and they’re mostly women) often work 10-to-12-hour days, six days a week, for what ends up being less than $15,000 a year — right at the poverty line in California, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
. Most factories pay workers on a piece-by-piece basis — as in pennies per item: three cents to hem a skirt, five cents to sew a sleeve, 11 cents to set a zipper.
Paying workers per piece is technically legal, as long as employers obey minimum-wage laws. California’s minimum wage is $9 an hour, and new law
will raise it to $15 in Los Angeles by 2020. If workers don’t sew enough pieces in an hour to earn the minimum wage, factories are supposed to
make up the difference.
But they don’t. “It never happens,” says Mar Martinez, organizing coordinator at the Garment Worker Center
, which provides resources and support for the 45,000 workers in L.A.’s garment manufacturing industry. She knows firsthand the struggle many sewing workers face: Her mother is a garment worker, and when Martinez was growing up, she and her older sister were the caregivers for their younger siblings and five cousins who lived with them.