How fast fashion turns LA’s garment factories into local sweatshops

‘Tis the season for holiday shoppers who are looking for deals. But some of those deals can come at a high cost for workers.

Los Angeles is home to more apparel manufacturing jobs than anywhere else in the country and many of those jobs are low-wage. According to 2014 Labor Department statistics, 48,831 people in Los Angeles work in the industry, sewing and piecing clothing that ends up in low and high end stores. Many of those workers are laboring under dangerous conditions according to a recent study from the UCLA Labor Center, “Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories: Health and Safety in Los Angeles’ Fashion Industry.”

Almost three quarters of those surveyed said their factories were covered in dust. Forty-two percent of the workers noted unsanitary conditions, the presence of rats and exits blocked at the workplace. Long hours and low pay are also huge concern for the authors of the study.

KCRW spoke to Janna Shadduck-Hernandez, co-author of the report and also the Project Director at the UCLA Labor Center.

KCRW: Those conditions were pretty grim…of those findings what were some of the ones that surprised you most, even in this day and age?

Janna Shadduck-Hernandez: A factory in the garment district is a small factory, often times with no windows so obviously no air conditioning, no ventilation. And working anywhere between eight and twelve hours a day is what garment workers work. Those are sweat shop conditions and so our study really points to the horrific conditions in the garment industry in Los Angeles, and we are the largest producing garment manufacturing base in the country at this point and the conditions for most of the workers is very much what we would think of a sweatshop in the developing world.

KCRW: Did the workers also describe adverse health effects as a result of these work conditions?

Shadduck-Hernandez: Many of the workers talked to us about having all kinds of body injuries, eye sight injuries, repetitive movement as we know and many other injuries. This leads to muscular skeletal problems, back problems, the issues of sight. Twenty-nine percent of the study said that there was inadequate lighting and that many of them have to get glasses or go to the doctors and we’ve meet garment workers who have actually been losing their sight because of this nimble fingers kind of work.

It’s kind of quite unbelievable that in a global city like Los Angeles that is the center of other kind of workplaces, like the film industry and a lot of financial districts, and the film industry. And then right down the street from any of those big high rises, you have literally blocks away, sweat shop conditions where people are making and selling clothes for some of the most wealthy brands. So this study is really calling not only on the retailers and the brands to be accountable to these workers. Not just knock-off brands; these are for large firms like Forever 21, Charlotte Ruuse, Tj Max, Ross, major brands that everyday consumers are buying in the malls on the Westside, are being produced right here in sweat shops in Los Angeles.

KCRW: The cost on a lot of these products is fairly low, do you think that some of these conditions are a function of the final end product’s price?

Shadduck-Hernandez: Absolutely, I mean there’s a couple things and we tried to highlight in our report; it’s part of what is called “the fast fashion industry.” This is a recent phenomenon where stores like Forever 21 or The Gap or any major retail wants to have on their shop floors two to three, sometimes a week, fashion swapped out so that there’s always trendy new fashion, new colors, new styles always on the floor at low prices. Certainly that consumer demand for this closest full of clothes that you often don’t even wear at all, if only once, at low prices is what’s driving the production of this industry and they need to be produced. People will say “well they are being produced in Bangladesh,” yes they are being produced in Bangladesh but to actually get that kind of turnaround to the shops, whether it’s from Los Angeles or in Chicago, much of that has to be done locally.

So a lot of clothes come partially from Asia and from Latin America but mostly from Asia and the Pacific Rim and are finally sewn here with whatever detail sewing, and therefore can be quickly picked up and brought to the stores either to the warehouses out in Riverside and then redistributed across the country. It is certainly part of the demand.

Consumer tastes have changed completely of what our demands are for clothing and how many shoes we have and how many shirts and pants we have. That is driving, one, the conditions of the workers in the workplace; but also driving the prices down and therefore forcing manufacturers who are subcontracted from the retailers to demand cheaper labor.

KCRW: The study came out in the same week that American Apparel was talking about layoffs and there is a big concern about keeping jobs in the U.S. Is there a concern that some of these garment jobs are going to flee?

Shadduck-Hernandez: Well, not too long ago these were unionized jobs, and these were good jobs, these were jobs where people were at least getting health benefits and insurance. In a very short period of time all of these jobs have gone underground and gone into sweatshop conditions. Why is that? It is that there is definitely not enough monitoring and accountability on the part of the retailers to keep these jobs safe and to at least adhere to the basic labor standards like wage and hour laws and basic protection. So it’s a complex issue but in order to keep these jobs here people are hollering for U.S.-made products. They want to have products made in the U.S.A then we also have to make sure that those products are done under conditions that are humane. The only way to do that is to be able to monitor that and to give agencies like OSHA and other agencies the funding to be able to monitor that these companies are actually abiding by basic laws. Until that full cycle comes together, this is still a place where the conditions are driven down to conditions that often, we only look at afar, across the Pacific Ocean.

KCRW: Do you think that this report will raise the level of awareness and that change can happen?

Shadduck-Hernandez: We hope so, that is our intent. We wanted to get this out around the holiday season where everybody is on a consumer flurry and trying to shop and buy low priced clothing and garments for their loved ones and to think about where that garment is coming from and under what conditions that was sewn. Here in California, our labor commissioner has been one of the proponents and one of the lead advocates around the improving garment industry, but it is a complicated cycle of partners that need to work together. Recently there have been some factories that have been fined because of their conditions. Those fines were in the hundreds, of thousands of dollars, and so we are hoping between that and this study, that we can really raise awareness around this.

Most Angelenos do not know that this is taking place and so we hope through the media, and being able to talk about the conditions and having garment workers themselves talk about what kind of conditions they are working under, we do hope that not only the consumer, but also our local state government will really begin to pay more attention to this. There are good laws on the books that actually can be used, however all good laws are only as good as they are enforced. And so in order to enforce the laws that we have, we also have to have systems that can monitor and then hold those employers accountable, find them, and if necessary, prosecute them.

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)