Many of California’s 45,000 garment workers are paid based on how many items of clothing they make rather than the number of hours they work, which advocacy groups like the Garment Worker Center say has led to rampant wage theft in the industry. Ensuring that wage and hour laws are followed has been difficult in the garment sector because a great deal of production is handled by network of small subcontractors, but the passage of a landmark workers’ rights bill in September 2021 has changed the legal and enforcement landscape.
Grass roots campaign
Efforts to pass what has since been named the Garment Worker Protection Act failed in 2020 when the legislative clock ran out on the bill, but media reports about garment workers being denied pay during a pandemic for work they had already done sparked outrage and put even more pressure on political leaders to find a solution. Key provisions of the GWPA include:
- Making brands responsible for garment worker pay
- Eliminating piece-rate pay
- Classifying garment workers as factory workers for minimum wage purposes
- Implementing stricter wage and hour enforcement practices along the entire garment supply chain
Opposition from trade groups
The bill was introduced in 2018, but it encountered fierce opposition in the state legislature largely due to relentless campaigning from groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and the American Apparel & Footwear Association. This opposition was eventually overcome by a grass roots campaign that gathered almost 300,000 signatures and attracted support from several leading fashion brands. The impetus for change got a boost when it was reported that thousands of garment workers had been denied pay because clothing manufacturers cancelled orders that had already been completed.
The lack of interest this legislation attracted prior to a public outcry reveals how strong the groups that advocate on behalf of big business are. The issues that rob garment workers of pay that they are legally entitled to have been plaguing the fashion industry for decades, but nothing was done about them until the public took an interest. Workers’ rights groups have every reason to celebrate their victory, but their fight should have been a shorter one.