The Sweatshop in America is Alive

A Los Angeles factory where workers make clothing for Fashion Nova. Photo Credit: Jessica Pons for The New York Times.

A sweatshop is a factory. It is a place where the work is hard, the pay is low, and the workplace is dangerous.

Sweatshops were common at the start of the twentieth century. They were places where clothing was sewn together. For the most part, Jewish and Italian immigrants worked in them. New York City’s Lower East was where they were.

Turn-of-century sweatshop.

Many years later, Hispanic and Chinese workers were sewing clothes. The work was still hard, but the working conditions and pay were better.

That does not mean that sweatshops are gone. One of the nation’s biggest brands has many of its garments sewn in sweatshops. The name of the company is Fashion Nova. They are about mass-produced cheap clothes that look expensive. The company is in Los Angeles. It is a hit on Instagram.

The store and online retailer use a network of famous people, influencers, and selfie-takers. They all post about the brand on social media. Its target is online clients.

Fashion Nova.

The U.S. government has found that many of Fashion Nova garments are sewn by workers who earn less than the law says they should. Los Angeles is full of these factories. Factories producing for Fashion Nova owe millions of dollars in back wages to their employees.

One reason this happens is that many of the workers are undocumented. A century ago, there was no such thing as an undocumented immigrant. Then the workers joined together and began labor unions. It took a long time, but the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) came into being. They have made life much better for garment workers.

At the end of the twentieth century, fewer workers were making garments in the U.S. The unions merged and joined other unions. They became much less important. But workers’ groups are trying to help them.

Courtesy, Made in L.A. documentary.

Even now, offshore production solves problems for many manufacturers. In 2018, about 80 percent of Fashion Nova’s clothes were made in the U.S. Now, the brand says it makes less than half of its clothes here.

This is how the system works. Private firms take direction from Fashion Nova on what clothing to produce. These firms ship fabric to factories owned by separate “contractors.” Employees of these contractors do the work and put the Fashion Nova label on.

Some workers labor in old buildings that smell like bathrooms. One worker said, “There were rats, the conditions were not good.” She worked every day of the week, but her pay varied depending on how much she could produce. She was paid for each piece of a shirt she sewed. It was about 4 cents to sew on each sleeve, 5 cents for each of the side seams and 8 cents for the seam on the neckline. On average, she earned $270 a week or about $4.66 an hour.

The American factories are a scandal. They are in Los Angeles, not in Bangladesh or Vietnam. Fashion Nova says when it learns of problems in the factories, it acts. The government says the company is cooperating. But the problem of exploited workers does not go away. Sewing shops are easy to open and close, easy to move from one place to another, and easy to change names.

Trade unions once worked to represent workers. Undocumented workers are hard to organize. And factories all over the world now compete with the American worker.

Source: The New York Times December 16, 2019

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