Reprinted with permission from the L.A. Garment Worker Center.
On September 27th, 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB62, the Garment Worker Protection Act. Despite enormous, dishonest, anti-worker lobbying efforts from industry associations and the California Chamber of Commerce, the direct advocacy efforts of garment workers produced public outcry and inspired coalitions of businesses, labor groups, and nonprofits to come together and fight for SB62.
It is difficult to overstate the impact that this will have on the lives of garment workers, who faced high rates of COVID-19 transmission last year while they put their lives on the line to produce masks in factories that skirted wage and safety laws. SB62 will transform the lives of more than 45,000 garment workers in California, a majority of whom currently only make one third of the minimum wage, and some as little as $3 an hour. Garment workers have an average of $600 stolen from their paychecks every single week.
During the campaign, Garment Worker Center member-organizers told the press that their conditions amounted to “modern-day slavery” and that brands who profited from their wage theft were “oppressors.” Garment Worker Center members stood up to those oppressors fearlessly, boldly, and honestly by sharing their stories and participating in a combination of an aggressive press strategy, direct actions, coalition-building, and legislative visits. The successful result of the campaign makes it clear that garment workers rights are workers’ rights, and that the struggles of garment workers are inextricably tied to advocacy for corporate accountability, workers’ protections, minimum wage advocacy, climate sustainability practices, and more.
SB62 built upon the work of AB633, a law that was passed in the wake of the El Monte scandal, where predominantly Thai garment workers were exploited and enslaved in a garment sweatshop producing for then-prominent fashion brands. The law, though well-intentioned, was skirted widely by brands, who hid behind sub-contractors and refused to do due diligence in their supply chains, even as they created a “race-to-the-bottom” pricing game that guaranteed it was virtually impossible for their contractors to pay minimum wage.
Paradoxically, brands were also responding to ever-changing public opinion and a society of consumers who have become much more concerned about the ethical implications and environmental impacts of what they’re purchasing. They did this while continuing to lobby against the advocacy of garment workers, assuming that they would be able to continue hiding behind contractors and dividing garment workers from broader labor, sustainability, and ethical organizing efforts.
Our business coalition of nearly 160 fashion brands and businesses, all of whom were at the forefront of those industry changes in response to more ethical, wary consumer behavior, are integral in standing up to these dishonest big brands. Our coalition drove home the fact that garment workers’ rights are a key foundation to ethical, sustainable business practices, and that corporate accountability for big brands is the only way that small businesses would be able to successfully compete. Our SB62 campaign demonstrated that garment workers’ rights are at the intersection of corporate accountability, workers’ rights, economic justice, public health, and sustainable, ethical business practices – making it impossible for brands to cover up their negligence.
We’re well aware that the garment worker industry is a microcosm of unscrupulous corporate tactics that are being used to oppress workers across the country and world. Amazon has hidden behind sub-contractors to skirt responsibility for the horrific abuses faced by workers in their warehouses. Uber and Lyft have monopolized the market and expected their drivers to very much act like employees, all while insisting that their drivers are independent contractors and aren’t subject to full-time wage protections and benefits. Big fashion brands did the same thing here, and to combat that, we hit them from multiple sides.
Our strategy was a multifaceted approach comprised of direct actions (such as a Lobby Day event in Sacramento where workers conducted legislative visits and protested outside of the Governors’ Office until a staffer came out to accept petition signatures), an aggressive communications plan that focused on uplifting workers’ stories to national media outlets, highlighting the very visceral, human impact of garment workers’ struggles, tying our messaging back to the Governor’s own record and public statements on worker rights, and diligently building an ethical fashion business coalition that was consistently engaged in campaign actions like writing letters of support, providing public comment at hearings, and sharing their stories with the media and legislators, all of which guaranteed that if SB62 was not signed, it would be clear that it was a betrayal of public opinion, morality, and political capital.
Our work now shifts to educating workers about their new rights, and fashion businesses about their new obligations before the law goes into effect on January 1st, 2022. Workers will be leading public health teams, educational campaigns, and more to share this news in multiple languages and locations. We’re also aware of the unique place the Garment Worker Center is in right now: we stood up to big brands, their insidious tactics of hiding behind subcontractors, and their dishonest big-money lobbying and we won, creating a law that is the first of its kind in the United States and delivering a powerful message to workers in the garment industry and beyond. We will use this momentum to fight for the other needs of garment workers and to expand upon the advocacy of organizations, unions, and ethical business coalitions that we built in the SB62 campaign in order to continue demanding corporate accountability and worker’s rights.
This is a historic, game-changing moment, and the Garment Worker Center intends to use that to uplift workers and push for other transformative changes here, nationally, and globally.
CAMPAIGN PRESS HIGHLIGHTS
VIDEO: American Sweatshops? (More Perfect Union, 9/8/21)
The Hidden World of Wage Theft in US Garment Industry (Put This On, 9/10/21)
The Politics of Fashion (Marie Clare, 9/12/21)
VIDEO: “There’s Some Kind of Modern Slavery Going On.” (CBS This Morning, 9/15/21)
Gov. Newsom signs bill expanding protections for garment workers. (LA Times, 9/27/21)
California passes law requiring hourly wages for garment workers. (Telemundo 52, 9/27/21)
Protection for Long-Exploited California Garment Workers is Finally Signed Into Law. (Fashionista, 9/28/21)
California Garment Worker Act Signed Into Law: ‘Ethical Fashion Is The Future.’ (Sourcing Journal, 9/28/21)
Garment Worker Protection Act Signed Into California Law. (Business of Fashion, 9/28/21)
California 1st to require hourly wages in garment industry. (AP News, 9/28/21)
VIDEO: Newsom signs law protecting sewing workers and domestic employees in California. (Univision LA, 9/28/21)
California’s garment labour law: The global implications. (Vogue Business, 9/30/21).
California bill assures garment workers an hourly wage. (Marketplace Morning Report, 10/1/2021)
Garment Workers Celebrate Historic Legislative Win. (Knock LA, 11/16/21)