To meet the national demand for protective gear, fashion and garment manufacturers quickly switched from producing clothes to producing masks and equipment for front-line workers. According to Garment Worker Center Outreach Coordinator Annie Shaw, this has led to Los Angeles garment workers being seen as essential for the first time. Still, workers are fighting for fair wages and workplace protections, which heightens the urgency for Senate Bill 1399, a piece of legislation currently pending California Assembly approval.

“Even though there is more visibility, our workers’ health and safety, let alone incomes, remain highly precarious,” Shaw said. “On the one hand, garment workers are essential; on the other hand, they are treated as disposable, risking their lives to work without sick or hazard pay.”

The Garment Worker Center is a workers’ rights organization spearheading an anti-sweatshop movement for thousands of Los Angeles garment workers. Estella, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, is an undocumented garment worker who has not been able to receive any federal or county aid due to her citizenship status. While California’s Disaster Relief Assistance Fund gave her a one-time $500 check, it was only enough to help with one month’s rent. 

“I do know I’m taking a big risk [going to work], but my husband has lost his job in the restaurant and the garment industry,” Estella explained. “I have two children and we have to pay rent and child care.”

Since Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti launched the LA Protects initiative in late March, garment manufacturers have reopened as essential businesses. However, inadequate safety protections and pressures to quickly mass produce have led to an uptick in COVID-19 cases among garment workers. According to the Los Angeles Times, county health authorities confirmed a coronavirus outbreak at Los Angeles Apparel with more than 300 infections and four deaths among the company’s workforce. Los Angeles Apparel CEO Dov Charney has refused to take responsibility.

Prior to the global pandemic, workers were already facing an exploitative system driven by fast fashion. The Los Angeles garment industry, the nation’s garment production capital, is notorious for operating within a network of subcontractors to avoid workplace liabilities. Brands and retailers contract with manufacturers in order to avoid directly employing workers and therefore having to compensate for stolen wages or overtime pay. Workers are also forced to endure long hours in factories with dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Out of 307 workers surveyed in a 2015 study, 42% reported that factory doors were regularly blocked and 60% experienced excessive heat and dust accumulation due to poor ventilation. These working conditions have not changed.

“People need an income. If there were actually more subsidies for workers, maybe the health and safety risks wouldn’t feel as trivial,” Shaw said. “It’s not trivial for workers. They just don’t have a choice.”

On average, workers make $5 per hour, according to wage claims processed by the Garment Worker Center. Workers are typically paid by the piece—each sleeve, zipper, or side seam makes between four and 10 cents. Over the past several decades, the individual piece rates have stayed approximately the same, despite rising costs of living and a higher minimum wage. By law, employers must pay workers the state minimum wage even if they have a piece rate pay system, but that has not been the reality. This pay system has led to decades of underpayment, but may soon come to an end with SB 1399.

Introduced in February this year by California Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, SB 1399 will eliminate the piece rate system and ensure multilateral accountability to prevent wage theft through layers of subcontracting. Known as the Garment Worker Protection Act, this bill also explicitly authorizes the Labor Commissioner’s Bureau of Field Enforcement to conduct workplace-wide investigations and issue citations on behalf of all the workers.

“It benefits the workers, but it also benefits the companies that follow the rules,” said Matthew DeCarolis, the bill’s co-sponsor and a staff attorney for Bet Tzedek Legal Services. “Otherwise, it’s a race to the bottom and the companies that follow the law are undercut.” The bill has passed in the California Senate and will be presented on the Assembly floor next week.

SB 1399 builds upon Assembly Bill 633, which was written in 1999. AB 633 created a Garment Restitution Fund that supported workers who had their wages stolen. As the pandemic unfolded, the lack of wage and workplace protections for workers were visibly exacerbated, making the need for SB 1399 more pressing to prevent wage theft in the first place.

“We need people to contact their Assembly members and ask for their support. Passing SB 1399 would be a major victory for us, and we will keep organizing,” Shaw assured. “We strongly believe that the only way these problems can be solved is if workers’ experience, stories and knowledge are heard.”

Kitty Hu is a Chinese American filmmaker and visual journalist with roots in the Bay Area, California. Having grown up as the daughter of immigrants, Hu’s work amplifies stories at the intersection of...