Do ‘Responsible’ Businesses Care Enough to Take a Stance on the Garment Worker Protection Act?

With all of the fashion industry’s changes over the years, labor legislation has been slow to catch up.

Labor laws become obsolete because the economic structure of that industry has changed. Over the past 20 years, fashion has changed,” said Victor Narro, project director and professor of Labor Studies at the University of California Los Angeles Labor Center.

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Narro was on the team that drafted California’s landmark worker protection law in 1999. Today, enforcement of the law is limited in scope which is why SB 62 (also known as the Garment Worker Protection Act) seeks to eliminate instances of wage theft by doing away with piece-rate pay.

As SB 62 winds its way through the California State Assembly, it has drawn support with 140 fashion businesses (including the likes of Reformation, Christy Dawn and Boyish) rooting for its passage. But the business interests — chiefly communicated by the California Chamber of Commerce and trade associations like the California Retailers Association — are still posing challenges for the bill.

Those business interests and arguments are almost “verbatim,” in the words of Narro, to what they were when the legislation was first drafted. Among them “job killer” is thrown out without caution, as is the criticism on the bill’s brand guarantor language (which aims to increase brand accountability) and potential to drive out employers.

“I understand the arguments from the Chamber of Commerce — but my data, my research counters it,” Narro said. His research highlights the nexus between the piece-rate system and the level of wage theft in the garment industry, as well as the broader economic toll.

In its wage theft study, UCLA Labor Center found that 88 percent of low-wage workers in Los Angeles experience at least one type of wage theft each week, losing an estimated total of $26.2 million per week in Los Angeles county alone.

Each year, minimum-wage violations by California employers sap the state’s workforce of nearly $2 billion in earnings, worsening conditions for the financially vulnerable and dragging down the state’s overall economic health, according to nonprofit think tank the Economic Policy Institute.

Meanwhile, the Garment Worker Center found that 62 percent of garment workers with wage and hour valuation cases earned their wages through the piece-rate system. Workers earned an average of $5.58 per hour or $297.83 for almost 60 hours of work.

“We are in the 21st century, we should not accept workers making $3, $4 or $5 an hour,” Narro said.

As for the brand guarantor language, Narro reassured that “if you’re a responsible player and you take responsible steps, then you have nothing to worry about.…The deputy labor commissioner is still going to have to do his or her work and look at all the possible guarantors that may be liable for wage claims. If you’re a brand and your name shows up, you can also take the steps — you can create documentation that you should not be liable [as guarantor]. There’s a due process there,” he said.

Other sensitivities arise around considering the bill a “job killer.” “If [opponents] call it a ‘job killer’ where garment workers have actually died, making [personal protective equipment] during the pandemic — I just think that’s shameful,” Narro said.

According to a recent study on job risk ratios from the University of California, San Francisco, “sewing machine operator” is one of the deadliest pandemic jobs, ranking seventh behind production and construction workers.

And with some 46,200 workers employed in the California-based garment industry, making it the largest garment manufacturing hub in the U.S., Narro believes there’s little likelihood for employer relocation out of the state to maintain margins — as opponents argue — if the bill passes.

Even so, some sustainably-minded brands with California-based operations have not come out publicly for or against the bill while maintaining memberships in trade associations that have vehemently opposed it.

The irony is a point of interest for bill supporters.

“I do find it interesting that we’re hearing from the associations and not the brands.…We don’t know who the brands are behind the scenes. Ustrive [Manufacturing] is the only business that has come out publicly [in opposition] out of all these associations,” Marissa Nuncio, executive director of the Garment Worker Center, a bill sponsor, said in a call with WWD.

“Do these associations really reflect the pulse of the industry and the pulse of what garment manufacturers are really concerned about in today’s industry?” Nuncio probed, pointing to the rise of sustainability in fashion that has also made green-washing prevalent.

Nuncio said the industry shift toward sustainability has created “a customer base that cares about labor rights.”

“I don’t think it’s so much as [trade associations] are out of touch,” Narro added. “There’s no way they’re unaware of the piece-rate system or wage theft in this industry. The issue is do they care? Do they care enough to be responsible? Do they care enough to make sure workers make what’s afforded to them under law?”

In a more human appeal, Narro believes workers’ voices and “strong voices from the business community to counter the strong opposition from the Chamber of Commerce,” will present the most compelling case to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will decide the fate of the bill in October.

The bill was put on suspense during Wednesday’s Assembly Appropriations meeting, as is the procedure for bills with significant fiscal impacts, and will be released on Aug. 26.

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