With each passing day, the global fashion industry churns out an upwardly spiraling volume of low-cost clothes, accelerating a dizzying turnstile of fads. Key to feeding this world-wide cheap-fashion merry-go-round: Poorly paid garment workers, whose exploited labor keeps the price tags of fast fashion just low enough to get shoppers back into stores, just in time to buy the next trend.
American shoppers assume that the downtrodden garment workers making their cheap, fast fashion toil far away, in factories in places such as China or Bangladesh. Yet, not a few of those workers are located in the United States, in Los Angeles to be exact, where a burgeoning fast fashion industry has taken hold in the last 15 years. Are these workers– protected by the U.S.’s tighter labor regulations and more conscientious watchdog consumers–in a better position than their foreign counterparts? Information, once hard to come by, is starting to emerge.
I was last inside a Los Angeles garment factory in 2010 to research my book Overdressed; the factories, compared to the thousand-person factories I saw in southern China and the large sewing rooms that once dominated New York’s schmata business, are quite small, with about thirty to fifty sewers, trimmers, and ironers in each little room, the name of Korean-owned business typed on computer paper and hung unceremoniously over the door.
The reason L.A. is now home to America’s fast-fashion industry are numerous: California pioneered the casual American “sportswear”industry more than a half century ago, and its factories are still primed to produce the flimsy, unconstructed knit styles fast fashion chains are known for. Add to that the Los Angeles’s ports accessibility to Asia, making the city a perfect partner and distribution hub for foreign-made fashion goods. Lastly, and perhaps most crucially–California has the largest number of immigrants in the United States. And its heaving and vulnerable undocumented Latino
population are the broken backbone of the city’s bustling fast fashion factories.
Parsons Anthropologist Christina Moon and photographer Lauren Lancaster spent two years studying L.A.’s flourishing fast fashion businesses, the thousands of small, nimble, hyper-creative and largely anonymous (to the public anyway) design, merchandising, and wholesale companies that now line Los Angeles’s “jobber market,” a 30-square-block downtown fashion hub pioneered by Jewish and Iranian-owned fashion business. These businesses, largely owned by first and second generation Korean immigrants, have worked their way up to top of the fashion production food chain, making America a major hub for fast fashion, but many of them contract out the dirty work of sewing clothes.
On the underbelly of the fashion wheel, in the more opaque niches and corners of downtown L.A., are the Asian and mostly Latino immigrants scraping together an existence sewing fast fashion. L.A. has over 45,000 garment workers, according to the Garment Workers Center. Many of those workers are undocumented, making it difficult to effectively organize them or lobby management and retailers for fair pay.
What we know is that they routinely face wage theft and unsafe working conditions: A 2012 U.S. Department of Labor report confirmed minimum-wage, overtime, and other violations in 93 percent of the 1,500 of garment factories it inspected. An unannounced sweep of ten downtown L.A. factories that same year found “sweatshop-like” conditions making clothes for more than 30 retailers nationwide, including Aldo, Burlington Coat Factory, Charlotte Russe, Dillard’s, Home Shopping Network, Rainbow Apparel, Ross Stores, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, Urban Outfitters, Wet Seal, and Forever 21. Workers were being paid less than $6.50 per hour on average. Additional research conducted by The Garment Worker Center concludes that conditions in L.A.’s garment factories are often paltry, lacking proper ventilation, clean and functioning bathrooms, and access to clean drinking water or first aid kits.
American Apparel, (despite recent controversy with ousted CEO Dov Charney) has by contrast built its brand off being L.A.-made and “sweatshop-free” and holds a unique place in the global fast fashion industry. Its massive seven-story downtown L.A. plant is the largest garment factory in the United States, boasting 4,500 employees and turning out one million garments a week. For over a decade the brand has been a vocal advocate for immigration reform, which has made the company a magnet for scrutiny. American Apparel’s downtown factory was pressured by the federal government to lay off its undocumented workers in 2009.
While American Apparel can be applauded for weathering the outsourcing fad of the last two decades, and keeping garment jobs in the U.S. and offering benefits such as health insurance, it’s questionable if even these are the kinds of jobs immigrants can use to work their way up in the world as garment workers could in the past–A recent New York Times story cited a sewing machine operator making $10 an hour in the American Apparel factory, hardly a middle-class wage.
Lupe, a woman I interviewed in 2010 for Overdressed, for example told me she could not afford American Apparel clothes on her wages from the factory.
The fast-fashion factories in Los Angeles are a move back in time, and reflect the greatly eroded position of the global garment worker. By contrast, four decades ago, garment work in America was a union job and a secure path to the middle class for immigrants. How many countless New York City garmentos were able hustle in the rag trade to offer their children a bright future? As one writer recently noticed, iconic American designers including Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren all had Jewish immigrant parents who came to the U.S. and worked as sewers and tailors in New York’s garment industry.
It’s not that there aren’t immigrant success stories in fashion anymore. As Moon and other writers have recently noted, many Korean immigrants have managed to work their way up, even emerging as some of the nation’s leading fashion designers.
Many Latinos meanwhile, without a clear path to citizenship, are trapped in a cycle of low-paid factory work that mirrors the impoverished status of garment workers all the way on the other side of the world, in places like Bangladesh. The repressed status of immigrants in America and garment workers around the world keep the price of key consumer goods, namely our fast fashion, very, very low.
The fast fashion system depends on low prices to keep consumers coming back to buy more. And those low prices are propped up by a vicious cycle of low-paid work, spanning Los Angeles to the slums of Dhaka.
And that is something we all should be ashamed of.