In the heart of SoCal, laborers toiling away for some of America's top fashion retailers continue to face wage theft and illicit pay practices, with certain folks taking home a meager $1.58 an hour, as revealed by a recent U.S. Department of Labor report.
The DOL's Wage and Hour Division dug into 50 garment contractors across Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino counties between July 31, 2021, and June 30, 2022, to gauge the scale of violations in the biz. Turns out, a staggering 80% of the contractors got caught red-handed, owing a total of over $892,000 in back pay and liquidated damages to 296 workers.
In more than half of these instances, employers sneakily paid garment laborers partly or wholly off the books. Payroll records were either conveniently doctored or suspiciously missing, according to the Labor Department's findings released last week.
Ruben Rosalez, Wage and Hour Regional Administrator, lamented in a statement, "In spite of our attempts to keep SoCal's garment industry employers on the straight and narrow, we still see folks making clothes for big-name retailers slaving away in sweatshops."
Many shoppers, he added, are probably clueless that the "Made in the USA" tag on their clothes hides the fact that they were produced by workers earning peanuts compared to the legally mandated wage.
The investigation also discovered that 32% of the contractors paid workers on a piece-rate basis, a practice that California outlawed in 2022. Shockingly, one Nordstrom and Stitch Fix contractor was found paying workers only $1.58 an hour, according to Michael Eastwood, director of enforcement for the Wage and Hour Division's Western Region.
Nordstrom assured that they took the findings seriously, emphasizing their commitment to supporting the well-being, safety, and rights of everyone in their supply chain. Dillards and Neiman Marcus, however, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Most of these severely underpaid garment workers – primarily immigrants – are too scared to speak up, fearing backlash or termination, Eastwood explained.
LA's bustling Fashion District employs about 20,000 garment workers, constituting roughly 83% of California's and the nation's cut-and-sew apparel sales. "Nowhere else boasts such a skilled workforce, with the average LA garment worker boasting 21 years of experience," remarked Jonathan Coleman, a spokesperson for the Garment Worker Center, an anti-sweatshop organization based in the Fashion District.
The Wage and Hour Division's studies found that the sewing fees manufacturers paid to contractors were, on average, $2.75 below the amount needed for contractors to meet federal wage standards. Contractors who played by the rules received a higher sewing fee, ranging from $17.50 to $35 per garment.
Coleman admitted the DOL's findings were disheartening yet unsurprising. He believes that, over time and with robust enforcement, legislation will drive change in the industry. However, the agency needs more muscle to enforce existing laws, and he's ready to back that effort.