For the past 30 years, Maria has worked in Los Angeles as a seamstress, steamer, and trimmer. Back in the ‘90s, she made $20 per week, a salary she used to support herself and her three kids who lived in Mexico.
“The world was collapsing for me,” Maria, who wished to keep her last name private, tells Refinery29 in Spanish. “[The United States] was supposed to be the land of opportunity.” Her salary wasn’t enough to cover her basic needs in Los Angeles, let alone succeed as a breadwinner for her family.
But as of January 2022, she is covered under the Garment Worker Protection Act, also known as SB62, a bill she helped lobby for since 2020. “It’s a great victory for us garment workers,” says Maria.
The Garment Worker Protection Act — signed into law last September by California Governor Gavin Newsom — is an anti-wage theft and brand accountability bill that makes the state the first in the country to require hourly wages for garment workers. It also bans piecework, a practice that allowed manufacturers to pay workers per garment, resulting in a salary of less than $6 per hour, according to Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Workers Center (GWC), a 20-year-old organization that helps low-wage garment workers in California.
Furthermore, the law establishes a new accountability precedent for brands and manufacturers that will penalize wage theft and other illegal pay practices. Led by the GWC, state senator Maria Elena Durazo, and organizations like Remake — which works to shift the fashion industry away from practices that are harmful to workers and the environment — the bill was backed by 158 retailers and designers, including Reformation, Eileen Fisher, and Mara Hoffman.
“You couldn't really eliminate the piecework system if the biggest actors weren't taking responsibility,” says Nuncio. “So together we thought it was a really strong bill.”
Today, Los Angeles is the biggest garment hub in the United States, servicing some of the world’s largest fast-fashion retailers. For decades, the industry has profited from a loophole that allows fashion companies to circumvent their responsibility in wage theft claims by subcontracting manufacturers. This way, fashion companies are able to argue they are not “garment manufacturers,” forgoing accountability for wages of workers making their products. SB62 expands the definitions of garment manufacturing to include anyone who is “dyeing, altering a garment’s design, and affixing a label to a garment.”
For the 45,000 garment workers in Los Angeles, this law is a chance at a better future. According to Maria, it’s about dignity.
“Wage theft is a very dramatic reality for us and people don’t know about this,” says Maria, who has been unable to afford basic necessities like housing and food in the past. “I think that this new law will allow us to live more calmly.” In the past few years, Maria got a taste of what life as an hourly worker could be like when she found a job that paid her a wage by the hour instead of per garment. Now, her salary is around $500 per week, a $200 jump from when she was being paid per garment. “It’s a big difference,” she says.
Nuncio says SB62 follows in the footsteps of other legal agreements passed around the world, most notably including the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh between brands and trade unions to guarantee safe working conditions for workers in the country’s textile industry. Passing SB62, she claims, is just the beginning.
“There is momentum and real organizing happening in the global anti-sweatshop movement toward brand accountability,” she says. “We are seeing more successful campaigns toward this end.” And while passing SB62 is a big win, Nuncio says the work is far from over. The GWC is now starting the next phase of its advocacy, which will focus on education and fiscalization. “We are moving from a policy campaign to an education campaign for workers and businesses,” she says.
First on the agenda: training workers on their new rights. The team started meeting in October 2021 to put together a step-by-step plan that will educate garment workers on how to exercise their right to an hourly wage, as well as file claims of wage theft. They are also working on an education campaign for businesses to make sure manufacturers and brands are obliging by the state’s new law.
“We want to really share this win in the spirit of solidarity and the spirit of mutual learning,” says Nuncio. The GWC also plans to expand its Wage Justice Clinic, hiring a new staffer in January to help workers file wage theft claims, as well as assist in the SB62 education campaign. There’s also $5 million on the table that was granted to the GWC through a budget process for legal services, education, and outreach that Nuncio says will be a prominent part of the organization’s focus this year.
“We also are going to really be talking with our legal allies about how we strengthen the support network out there for workers who want to bring wage claims forward,” she says. “And how do we use it best to get those funds out into the community.”
Nuncio adds that the GWC is now keen on replicating the success of SB62 elsewhere: “We have to create this transnational movement for it,” she says.
Her eyes are set on New York. While Los Angeles is U.S.’s biggest garment manufacturing city, New York’s Garment District is home to over 5,000 garment workers as of 2018. The hourly minimum wage in New York ranges from $11.80 to $15, depending on where in the state the company is located. Many garment workers are still impacted by wage theft. “It’s really interesting to see that in two of the major garment centers in the U.S., wage theft is prominent,” says Nuncio.
New York’s SWEAT bill is intended to take care of this. Unlike SB62, the SWEAT bill extends beyond garment workers in New York State. But similarly to SB62, it’d make companies liable for unpaid wages.
According to a representative from National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), a 20-year-old organization focused on ending workers’ rights violations, businesses get away with not paying around $1 billion to garment workers every year in New York State. Furthermore, companies are able to forgo paying workers back even when the court rules in the workers’ favor. Right now, companies are able to move or hide assets, making it hard for workers to collect their payments even when a resolution is passed. The SWEAT bill would force companies to freeze their assets until the resolution of a case, ensuring workers will be able to collect their money.
First proposed in 2019, the bill was vetoed by former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in January 2020. Now, with the appointment of Governor Kathy Hochul, SWEAT sponsor Senator Jessica Ramos is hoping to get the bill passed when the senate is back in session in January.
“[SWEAT] is a bill that has been languishing in the state senate for a long time,” says Ramos. “We are ready to start the cycle all over again.” Hochul already established herself as a supporter of New York’s fashion industry during New York Fashion Week last September, announcing a state partnership that would open the Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park in downtown Manhattan and Moynihan Train Hall in Midtown to designers participating in NYFW — for free. (Most designers pay between $20,000-$50,000 to rent a fashion show venue, according to Vogue Business.)
For Ramos, it all comes back to the workers. “What we are trying to do is make it easier for these workers to obtain their lost wages,” says Ramos, who is the chair of the New York State Senate’s committee on labor. “We seek to empower workers in any industry with the tools to get their money back."