A young Latina mother rises before the sun each morning to prepare for a 12 hour shift. She’ll spend that day working in a dimly lit factory that is covered in dust. Inside the factory, stacks of boxes block fire exits and because there is no air-conditioning, the heat becomes almost unbearable. She earns a piece-rate wage, meaning she is paid according to how much she produces as opposed to an hourly wage, so she’ll try to avoid drinking water to minimize bathroom breaks. She’ll work like this for 60–70 hours a week and even after minimizing time spent away from her station, she’ll be lucky to walk away with $300 at then end of the week.
This isn’t the story of a woman in a far off, low-income country. It’s the story of thousands of women right now, in Los Angeles, California.
The reality of sweatshops in Los Angeles may come as a shock in the context of the California many of us know — a California with minimum wage standards, unions, and basic worker’s rights. Unfortunately sweatshop workers do not benefit from many modern day labor laws. The U.S. legal system often favors the rights of companies over individuals. For example, companies cannot be penalized for wage theft in factories if they can credibly claim that they did not know their clothes were made by workers paid illegally low wages. As a result, rampant wage theft, low wages, and poor working conditions are common in the Los Angeles garment industry. The Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, found that 60 percent of those surveyed reported “excessive heat and dust accumulation due to poor ventilation that rendered it difficult to work, and even to breathe.” The issue has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and in a recent Los Angeles Apparel outbreak, 300 of the factory’s roughly 1,800 employees tested positive for COVID-19.
The issue also remains hidden because the victims come from a vulnerable and underprotected population: Latina immigrants. An estimated 80 percent of workers in the Los Angeles Downtown Fashion District are immigrant women, predominantly from Mexico. Many of them are undocumented. Because of immigration status, language barriers and cultural barriers, many of these women are either too afraid to ask for assistance or don’t know how. Undocumented labor contributes more than $180 billion a year to the California economy, meaning large-scale business owners and policymakers often have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, even if it means ignoring the harsh reality for so many of those undocumented laborers. What many Californians see as basic worker rights — access to child care, union membership, and healthcare — are inaccessible to most undocumented laborers.
The hidden nature of garment industry sweatshops, in conjunction with the highly vulnerable population it targets, raises serious human trafficking concerns. Because many of these workers do not have access to legal protection, have minimal access to income opportunities, and are under immense pressure to maintain whatever form of employment they can find, they are at high risk of being trafficked. Traffickers prey on vulnerable populations because they know they’ll probably get away with it.
A Devastating Disconnect
The story of the young Latina mother doesn’t end there. On the other side of the aisle, a young woman is scrolling through her instagram feed. An ad pops up for the in-style jacked she’s been eyeing but hasn’t quite brought herself to purchase, given its $100 price tag. The jacket in her instagram feed immediately catches her eye because it is an identical $10 knock off from Fashion Nova (the brand is notorious for stealing original fashion designs). With Instagram’s latest shoppable feed technology, she purchases the jacket seamlessly in just a few clicks — without any real picture of the brand, how they operate, and who they employ.
There is an unbelievable disconnect between the woman who produces the product and the Instagram shopper. The intentional and deceitful actors that blur the connection of these two stories are the brands which sprawl our social media feeds and internet advertisements, offering temptingly low prices for trendy styles and obscuring the human faces that produced them.
We’re all probably familiar with these multi-million dollar companies like Fashion-Nova, Forever 21, which are often endorsed by high-profile celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Cardi B. Unfortunately, the marketing strategy of celebrity endorsements and greenwashing, has been tremendously successful in disguising the truth behind how these companies are able to make hundreds of thousands of on-trend clothing items at exceptionally low prices.
Bridging Two Tales
Although they may seem worlds apart, the sweatshop worker’s story is intrinsically connected to that of the young Instagram shopper. Ending sweatshop labor begins with consumers recognizing that all products are not made equitably and by choosing to shop consciously. If consumers begin demanding ethically made products and transparent processes, producers will have no choice but to shift with changing demands.
Here are a few ways in which we can individually help break the cycle of unethically produced clothing:
- The easiest and most effective way to shop consciously is to consume less or buy used. The supply of mass production facilities is fed by fast-fashion and high-consumption attitudes. Break the cycle by revamping or repairing items you already own or shop thrift and vintage.
- If you do buy new, do some research on the brand. Use the Good On You app, which rates brands by their adherence to ethical standards and provides alternatives to non-ethical brands.
- Look out for greenwashing: Vigilance is imperative — many brands have capitalized on demands for equitaby made products with deceitful marketing strategies that use words like “sustainablity” and “feminist” on cute graphic tees and woven into instagram captions. Brands are smart, so know how to avoid companies engaged in greenwashing.
- Know that the cheapest price is rarely the fair price. If you want to purchase ethically made clothing, be ready to pay for the higher priced item, not the cheap knock off. If you can’t afford the higher-priced item, wait until you can or shop used instead. Apps like Poshmark are a great way to find cute and affordable used clothing items.
- Empower women to view themselves beyond their fashion choices. Breaking the cycle shouldn’t be about shaming women who feel pressure to keep up with trends or who can’t afford sustainable alternatives. Instead, it should be about building a culture where women can derive worth beyond appearances and about providing constructive alternatives rather than pointing fingers.
Changing consumer habits is by no means the only step necessary to ending sweatshop labor in the United States. We need serious policy reform and the recent failure by California policy makers to pass the California Garment Worker Protection Act, which would have guaranteed the state's minimum wage to 45,000 garment workers, showed that policymakers still don’t have the interests of sweatshop laborers in mind. Still, individuals have the power to break the silence behind sweatshop labor. By becoming conscious consumers and by creating a positive ecosystem for other consumers to change habits, we can take an active role in illuminating the faces behind fashion production.
For more information on how Free to Thrive is advocating for human trafficking survivors in the garment industry, visit FreeToThrive.org.