Fashion Seems Split on the Garment Worker Protection Act — But Why?

That 2021 would still see a division within fashion when it comes to supporting improved garment worker rights should raise questions about the sector’s ethics, particularly as more and more board the sustainability train in an attempt to counter conversations around fashion’s dirty ways.

As the Garment Worker Protection Act, or California Senate Bill 62 (SB 62), lies in suspense awaiting a full assembly vote expected later this summer, there’s a split in sentiment between those who support it and those who aren’t exactly rallying behind it.

The main issue the bill seeks to address is eliminating piece-rate pay for workers which, in addition to potentially setting them up to work faster than they should or to cut corners, the system works out, for many garment workers in California, to about $2.68 to $5 an hour in take-home pay, Remake founder Ayesha Barenblat said during a press conference around the act on Wednesday. The current minimum wage in California is $14 an hour.

The proposed bill also endeavors to hold brands accountable for any unpaid wages, instead of leaving that solely to factories to address. It’s here, within the shared liability portion of the bill, where players take divergent paths.

Supporters are keen to see the bill’s passage, the elimination of the piece rate and added protections against things like poor working conditions and wage theft. To this, detractors fear damage to factory worker productivity.

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“The bill is not doing away with productivity targets — you can have the productivity targets, but minimum wage is minimum wage,” said Sanjeev Bahl, founder of sustainable denim manufacturer Saitex, one of the 140 businesses that Remake, a nonprofit fighting for better practices in fashion, has tracked as being in support of SB 62. Others include Mara Hoffman, Eileen Fisher and Doen. “In manufacturing you have to be productive. When you start talking about $14 an hour or $15 an hour and you compare it to Vietnam or any other place [or] Third World country that [pays] $2 an hour, $3 an hour or whatever it may be, it sounds a lot.”

For Bahl and many other manufacturers, the costs of producing fashion are rising across the board, and wages always seem to be one of the last places brands want to pay up.

Rampant supply chain delays aside, the cost of air freight per kilogram from the Far East to the U.S., Bahl said, was roughly $2.50/kg pre-pandemic — “today, it’s anywhere from $9, $10, $11 [per kg], whatever anybody wants to make up.” The cost of a 40-foot container, he said, “was $2,500. Today, it’s $11,000 and nobody is talking about that.”

Collating that “global reality,” as Bahl referred to it, $15 an hour may seem high for fast-fashion brands that retail items for less than that. But for sustainable brands dedicating more dollars to what they’re making and selling, it makes U.S. manufacturing a more comparable option.

The problem, and one of the reasons for divergence on the Garment Worker Protection Act, according to Bahl, is the industry’s longstanding “habit and mentality” of cutting costs and perpetuating low wages to sustain downstream wins.

“Rather than marginalizing labor and then blaming labor for that high cost…while they sit in their big house with their white picket fences…They don’t have the guts to pay people who put bread on their table $15 an hour,” he said. “I would say, shame on you.”

It’s precisely that “paying more,” that has been the thorn in fashion’s side as the industry has sought for years to find the cheapest places to produce.

Remake advocacy and policy director Elizabeth L. Cline said Wednesday, citing a U.S. Department of Labor investigation, that “brands are often paying 73 percent less than they would need to for factories to pay minimum wage.”

“Brands really need to understand how their purchasing practices can really impact workers in the supply chain,” said Carrie Freiman, director of sustainability of Reformation, another of the 140 businesses signed on in support of SB 62. “Brands actually have undue influence on the wages paid downstream to garment workers.”

Freiman’s comment came in response to claims from bill detractors dissatisfied with its brand wage liability aspect because they say brands have little control over what happens in the factories.

Industry organizations like the American Apparel and Footwear Association are among those that have taken that stance.

In a letter urging the California Assembly to oppose the current Garment Worker Protection Act, AAFA said, “…there are elements of this bill that we support. However, the brand guarantor provision, creating joint and severable liability, represents an extraordinary misunderstanding of who is responsible for the payment of workers’ wages and will worsen the situation of garment workers by creating an exodus of brands from California and subsequent job loss. This will only exacerbate the economic pressures behind the situation the legislation is intended to avert.”

For Cline, the position is one she doesn’t feel represents — or should represent — a modern fashion industry.

“The notion that brands have no control over what happens in factories is so outdated and frankly it’s embarrassing that an American association would even take this stance,” she said. “These trade associations that often reflexively issue statements in response to labor rights law, [that] doesn’t actually reflect the industry’s position.”

While Patagonia, for one, couldn’t be immediately reached for confirmation, Cline said the brand — though it hasn’t come out in support of SB 62 — told Remake, “We are not opposed to SB 62 and the AAFA statement is not representative of our company’s position.” The Patagonia statement also appears on Remake’s website.

Clarifying further to WWD on Wednesday, AAFA president and chief executive officer Steve Lamar said: “We strongly support passage of an SB 62 that doesn’t eliminate California as a competitive and responsible manufacturing hub for apparel. Unfortunately, one provision of SB 62, as currently written would do just that. Although the legislation contains many important reforms, the unsustainable joint liability provision — the only element of this bill that we have opposed – would work at cross purposes with those reforms, driving garment manufacturing out of California and leading to the loss of good jobs in the state. Through our education and advocacy, ensuring and enforcing strong labor rights and best-in-class working conditions both in the U.S. and abroad are among AAFA’s highest priorities.”

Bahl of Saitex contends the bill won’t drive his out of California and he doesn’t think it has to work that way for other brands either.

It has been part of Bahl’s commitment, in setting up manufacturing in Los Angeles after starting Saitex’s supply chain operations in Vietnam, to go a little against the grain compared to what has often been traditional practices in the upstream side of fashion’s business.

“Factories have played the labor arbitrage card…and that has led to a lack of innovation,” he said. Using advanced tech and artificial intelligence to find new ways to manufacture a pair of jeans, Bahl said, where producing 1,000 pairs of jeans a day in Vietnam takes 250 human workers, doing so in the Los Angeles facility takes between 100 to 125 people.

“We have managed to reduce the footprint by 50 percent,” he said. “That allows us to be competitive even at $14, $15 an hour.”

Questions have arisen as to why brands aren’t taking more of a public stance on the Garment Worker Protection Act, but those who are speaking out believe the bill’s regulation could help secure worker wages, keep brands from exploiting the piece rate and embrace shared risk, which some advocates believe is only fair.

“I wish that it were true that there were just a handful of bad actors, but we know wage theft in Los Angeles is endemic,” Cline said, recalling a statistic that more than 80 percent of garment workers in L.A. have been victims. Even the Garment Restitution Fund, which was created by the California legislature 20 years ago to fill in wages where workers don’t get what they’re entitled to, is “overwhelmed with hundreds of cases every year.”

“It’s often California taxpayers who are having to backfill this fund and fill in these gaps in wages that are owed to workers,” Cline said. “It’s really just an outrageous system that these huge companies aren’t jointly responsible for wage theft.”

What’s more, when it comes to upsides of the bill, Reformation’s Freiman said the regulations in SB 62 could help usher in “a new standard of compliance.”

“I think it could also reestablish California as the epicenter of ethical manufacturing,” she said.

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