"Pulling at The Threads of Injustice" is a series dedicated to those directly affected by fast fashion- the garment workers.
The Los Angeles Fashion District, once known as the LA Garment District, is a famous sub-neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles, CA where over 4,000 predominantly independently owned wholesale and retail businesses sell fabrics, footwear, clothes, and accessories.
It’s easy to get lost in the sea of stores and simply toss the items at too-good-to-be-true prices into our carts before taking a moment to consider why they’re just too good to be true. The hard truth is this: while you might be handing over the cash to purchase the item, the real price is the one paid by the hands that made it.
What exactly is that price?
You don’t have to look far, you don't even have to travel outside the country. The list of issues associated with the working conditions in the LA Fashion District is a long one. According to a 2016 Department of Labor investigation, worker exploitation within the district is rooted in the fact that industry contractors receive only 73% of the money they require to pay their workers minimum wage. The outcome is cheaply-made clothes, workers being paid less than minimum wage, and retailers boosting their profits.
What’s worse is that the very people that make up this workforce, the ones being undeniably short-changed, are the ones who rely on what little they make more than anyone else. Referred to as an “underground economy”, the LA Fashion workforce is hugely dependent on undocumented immigrants- a demographic that, on top of wage theft, is already subject to poorer health and more dangerous working conditions.
To maintain the intense production speed that wholesale industries rely on, employees are expected to work around the clock. They’re incentivized with what’s known as the piece rate, a fixed amount earned with each garment they make- AKA a convenient way for company owners to steer clear of compensating their workers properly, on an hourly basis. According to employees who’ve worked in the industry for more than 20 years, the piece rate has stayed as low as 2-3 cents for the last 30 years. The average wage of $6/hr for garment workers grows more and more disproportionate to the now $15/hr state minimum, especially with the increasing cost of living in LA.
When it comes to the actual conditions of the workspace, workers describe their experiences as grueling 6-day weeks totaling about 60 hrs of work. One worker, wishing to remain anonymous, shared, “We work non-stop. We don’t take any breaks, but make anywhere from $250 to $300 per week.” If they are granted meal breaks, not only are they brief, but they take place in kitchens “infested with rats and cockroaches.”
But it doesn’t stop there. Significant workplace injuries are common and are often caused by equipment- sewing needles, specifically. The anonymous worker describes, “Something that happens very commonly is the sewing needle will actually break through and impale one of your fingers.” But the worst part is that they’re left to patch themselves up with not even a first-aid kit to work with.
And while much of the world came to a halt for COVID, many employers simply moved workers down a few floors to windowless spaces to stay out of sight of authorities. Not only did they continue operating, but they did so without enforcing any COVID safety guidelines. It took until one Los Angeles Apparel company faced an outbreak among 300 workers and 4 employee deaths to finally shut down in July of 2021, 13 months into the pandemic.
So it’s no surprise that a 2016 US Department of Labor investigation revealed that a whopping 85% of 77 randomly inspected factories came up with labor violations. If you’re looking for names associated with the factories operating under conditions like these, you’re looking at some of your favorites: Charlotte Russe, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, and Fashion Nova. So, the next time you flip the tag on a new top, and it reads “made in America,” don’t be fooled. Dig a little deeper and it’s likely you’ll find that the garment factories not far from home are much closer to overseas sweatshops than we think.
It might feel impossible to navigate the fashion scene, ALMAZ is here as a viable alternative. Check out our closet for beautiful finds that are more conscious, more sustainable, and more affordable.