The California legislature voted to approve a bill yesterday that would increase garment workers’ wages and make brands liable for ensuring those wages.
The bill will now go back to the Senate for final approval before heading to the governor to sign or veto, a decision he has until 10 October to make.
If enacted, Senate Bill 62 would require apparel factories to pay workers by the hour, rather than per piece produced, and it would hold brands and retailers liable for wage theft in their supply chains, including incidents that take place in third-party contractors — a common arrangement in fashion that advocates say allows brands to avoid taking responsibility for poor manufacturing practices. The liability is what advocates say is required to move the needle in apparel’s fragmented supply chain, because there’s little incentive otherwise for companies to do so. Proponents say it will help to address the “sweatshop” conditions they say have become standard practice in the Los Angeles garment industry, the largest manufacturing hub in the US, while opponents say it will stifle growth and lead to job losses.
“It echoes my values, but this is not a passion project. This is a business. I have employees and we have clients and we would be so much more competitive if I didn’t have to compete against people who were working in sweatshops here,” says Bo Metz, founder of LA-based Bomme Studio and a supporter of the bill.
The bill shines a light on the concern some have that the industry’s expanding focus on sustainability has left labour practices behind. And a number of the more than 100 brands that reportedly support the bill say it would also help companies already paying higher wages by pushing others to do the same, and levelling the playing field they are trying to compete on. The bill follows on the heels of more than 90 brands signing the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment and Textile Industry, the legally-binding agreement on factory safety that went into effect on 1 September and effectively replaces the historic Bangladesh Accord. The two efforts stand out in an industry where most efforts to improve labour practices, and environmental practices for that matter, are voluntary and have had little in the way of meaningful impact. The new accord will continue the work begun under the Bangladesh Accord and potentially be expanded to other manufacturing countries.
“Right now, the brands that break the rules are actually rewarded for doing so and those that follow them are at a disadvantage,” says Elizabeth Cline, advocacy and policy director at the nonprofit Remake. “Liability attaches a cost to committing wage theft, which is why [SB 62] is going to be so effective.”
Closing the “policy vacuum”
Last December, the advocacy group Garment Worker Center published a report saying the average wage for LA garment workers is $5.85 per hour — and sometimes as low as $2.68 per hour — well below the state’s $14 minimum wage. In January, University of California, San Francisco researchers published a study showing that garment workers were among the occupations with the highest increased risk of death in California during Covid-19, noting a number of related variables including low wages and the inability to work remotely.
The underlying cause of the low wages, according to the Garment Worker Center, is factory owners being forced to accept low prices from brands they manufacture for. Manufacturers accept the price offered them out of fear of losing the work entirely. Business owners like Metz, and advocates for higher standards more broadly — not just for better labour practices but for improved environmental standards as well — say that makes it impossible for them to compete on price.
“A lot of businesses trying to do it right are doing it in a policy vacuum. SB 62 is here to really close that gap — to make the playing field more level and fair,” says Ayesha Barenblat, Remake founder and CEO. For her, the significance of the bill extends far beyond California. “If we get it right here, maybe we can get it right in other places.”
The California Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the bill, does not object to replacing piece-rate pay with hourly wages. “It’s unacceptable that there are members of this industry that continue to pay below minimum wage or are engaged in other wage theft,” says CalChamber policy advocate Ashley Hoffman. The group objects to the liability provision, saying it puts an unfair burden on brands. “I don’t think there’s maybe an appreciation really for the legal liability risk that will be placed on companies,” she says.
As with the Bangladesh Accord, however, the liability is the aspect of the bill that makes it a potential game-changer. “We can say to brands: ‘you can no longer pay by the piece, you have to pay the minimum wage’ — but if there’s no more recourse, how are they doing to do that? We have to have that liability,” says Garment Worker Center director Marissa Nuncio. “This bill was crafted very carefully to have both parts work together.”
Reformation, which says it does 40 per cent of its cutting and sewing in LA (in one factory that it owns, as well as in third-party facilities), supports the bill, saying it aligns with the brand’s ethos. “It was an easy decision for us, especially as an LA-based brand who manufactures so many of our products in the community,” says director of sustainability Carrie Freiman Parry.
Other California companies that support the bill include Bomme Studio, Boyish Jeans, Christy Dawn, Nona Atelier and denim manufacturer Saitex. The bill has garnered support among brands based outside the state as well, such as Eileen Fisher and Mara Hoffman, some of which would be affected by the law and some that wouldn’t.
Brands most frequently associated with wage violations, according to the Garment Worker Center’s research, include Ross and Fashion Nova. Charlotte Russe, Forever 21, Disney and Urban Outfitters have been named in the past as well; the latter declined to comment and the others did not respond. Through an external spokesperson, Fashion Nova said it supports SB 62. “Fashion Nova already requires compliance from all of its vendors and subcontractors to adhere to all laws and guidelines, including the $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles with serious consequences when they fail to do so, including terminating their contracts,” the spokesperson said.
Ross said it does not own, operate, direct or control manufacturing operations in LA or elsewhere, and a spokesperson said all vendors are required to follow labour laws, adding, “If we learn of any specific violations by our vendors or their suppliers, we work with our vendors to correct them. If they fail to correct them, Ross is fully prepared to terminate our relationship with them, as we have done in the past.”
CalChamber and other SB 62 opponents say that the bill would kill jobs, but advocates argue that the “Made in the USA” tag has a reputation at risk if sweatshop conditions and sub-minimum wage pay continue. “The law is basically saying: ‘you can’t exploit people’. So it’s a job killer only if the corporate mandate is that we make things with extraction sewn in,” says Christy Dawn CEO Aras Baskauskas.
The ethics missing from the trend toward sustainability
Lynda Grose, fashion design chair at California College of the Arts and co-founder of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, is disappointed by the lack of support for the bill from fashion brands and industry associations that prioritise environmental sustainability — and she says neutrality is insufficient.
“If we’re advertising sustainability on the front end and we’re not able to act on the back end, the disconnect is very concerning,” she says. “That’s the pressure point. There’s something wrong with our movement. When our gold standard company has not come out in clear support of the bill, where are we? I just feel like we’re lost, completely lost.”
Alnea Farahbella, founder and designer at clothing brand Toit Volant and founder of manufacturer Nana Atelier, based in LA, says she gets unreasonable price requests — to make a t-shirt for a total of $1.50, for example, which she says can’t possibly cover decent wages and working conditions. This occurs just as often with brands calling themselves sustainable as it does with more mainstream brands. “Sustainability means more than fabric, it means your whole manufacturing practices,” she says.
As with the growing demand for better environmental practices, advocates say that higher ethical standards are the direction the industry is heading. For them, the law would reinforce that shift, and brands that are thinking strategically would be smart to get behind it.
While SB 62 would be unique if passed, the intent behind the effort is not and some governments are moving in a similar direction. In March, the European Union announced mandatory due diligence legislation to curb abuses occurring in the supply chain. It could potentially hold companies accountable for environmental and social abuses in their supply chains; the full proposal is expected next month, and could be approved in 2022.
“California has this momentum going. It doesn’t make sense that our law is lagging so far behind,” says Nuncio. She says the coinciding timing with the enactment of the binding International Accord is a reflection of the industry-wide need to replace voluntary measures with mandatory standards. “As workers and advocates around the world know, a major solution lies in holding brands accountable. GWC is trying to figure out how to achieve that within our legal landscape.”
For Metz of Bomme Studio, the Accord and SB 62 are two sides of the same coin. “I don’t really see a distinction between working conditions and wage theft. Essentially you should be taking care of people and not exploiting people.”