Bill, the Californian garment worker, will fuel the return of “Made In USA”. Here’s why.
Clothing “Made in America” represents 3% of all clothing sold in the United States. This is no small feat in a $ 1.5 trillion global fashion market. But as Covid-19 continues to disrupt supply chains, the trade battle with China drags on and the Biden administration defends its ‘Buy American’ agenda, domestically produced fashion is finally on the rise.
“Almost all of the factories I spoke with this year have more demand than at any time in the past decade,” says Christian Birky, founder of Because Capital, a new company formed to purchase manufacturing facilities. Americans and improve their social and environmental impact. .
The key to a healthy comeback for the country’s apparel industry lies in good wages and strong labor laws, like California’s Senate Bill 62, the Garment Worker Protection Act, which is currently on. Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, awaiting his signature.
SB62 aims to abolish sweatshops in America’s largest garment production hub by ensuring that garment manufacturers receive minimum wage. It also creates joint and several liability for brands when wages drop below the legal level.
“The SB62 supports the future of American manufacturing because it supports companies that do things right,” says Birky.
In fact, 158 fashion manufacturers and fashion brands have officially approved the Garment Worker Protection Act, including Saitex, the maker of sustainable denim for global giants like J. Crew, Target and Ralph Lauren.
“It was a really easy decision for us, especially as a Los Angeles-based brand,” Reformation’s sustainability manager said at a press conference in July.
Yet powerful trading groups that largely represent the big companies that manufacture overseas are threatening to undermine this comeback by using fear-mongering tactics against SB62.
Rick Helfenbein, retired president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade association that includes brands like Gap, Under Armor and Levi’s, wrote in Forbes that the increase in wages of garment workers from California to the State minimum would endanger California’s “46,000 entry-level clothing jobs”. About 12% of AAFA’s members and two companies on its board of directors produce in the United States, according to its website.
Likewise, the California Chamber of Commerce, a big business advocacy group that is trying to overturn workers’ rights bills seen as a threat to its corporate members, has warned of an exodus of labor. State whether brands must guarantee legal wages in their factories.
Commercial groups threaten the return of “made in America”
The idea that American fashion must underpay its garment workers to compete is misleading. No American aspires to wear Sweatshop-Made-in-USA clothing. It undermines the whole premise. It is also quite simply wrong.
“It’s not the low prices that drive them here,” Birky says of brands moving to onshore, a term for manufacturers bringing work back to the United States.
California is no substitute for overseas production, where factories are gigantic and shipping times slow. LA, the country’s largest garment production center, is known for its fast turnaround times, easy-to-access ports and distribution centers, and highly skilled workforce. These 46,000 workers are not, as Helfenbein describes it, “entry-level” workers. Many have over 20 years of experience.
As a high-wage developed country, America cannot compete with Asia on labor costs. He shouldn’t either. On the contrary, American innovation and innovation policy can lead to global improvements in the fashion industry.
Saitex, for example, has been called “the world’s cleanest denim factory” and uses cutting-edge technology like laser cutting and big data to save energy and water. “We are training the workforce to the next level that should exist in modern manufacturing landscapes,” said owner Sanjeev Bahl. “And you create an equal opportunity for people to get respectable jobs, which are sustainable.”
Contrary to popular belief, high-tech clothing factories have no shortage of people. It takes 150 workers to make 1,000 pairs of jeans at Saitex every day.
Who dreams of Made in the USA?
Helfenbein’s article also claims California’s Made in USA project is a “dream”, but goes on to say that reducing labor costs is the only way to “stay competitive in the global market.”
Of course, what he describes is a nightmare for California textile workers, their families and communities, as many are earning one third of the minimum wage ($ 5.15 an hour is the average) and millions of dollars in wage arrears are owed for the clothes they’ve made, often sewing clothes for big brands like Fashion Nova, Ross Dress for Less and Urban Outfitters
Garment workers in California are underpaid through the piece-rate system, where they are paid pennies per garment sewn. SB62 will simply require factories to meet the minimum wage. After that, they can use the piece rate as a productivity bonus.
“SB62 does not prevent factories from using piecemeal incentives, just using them as an excuse to ignore minimum wage laws,” says Birky.
The reality is that the proliferation of sweatshops is harming the American dream. It also slows down future growth and makes it harder to attract talent. “The garment factories have orders but find it difficult to recruit because they have a reputation for being sweatshops, and people don’t want to work there,” says Birky. According to the Garment Worker Center, a non-profit organization, 30 brands have written personal letters to the governor of California saying the state’s appalling working conditions threaten their company’s reputation.
What is the problem for industry groups?
The AAFA and the California Chamber of Commerce are likely raising concerns about offshoring, as they are not satisfied with a key provision of the Garment Worker Protection Act, which is the extended liability of the SB62 brand.
Once passed, SB62 will ensure that brands and retailers that use contractors who pay garment workers below minimum wage will be held jointly responsible for a worker’s stolen wage. “Businesses are simply opposed to being held accountable for any situation they cannot control,” writes Helfenbein.
It’s a myth that brands and retailers “can’t control” what goes on in their factories. A US Department of Labor investigation found low brand prices are at the root of endemic sweatshop conditions in Los Angeles. Research has repeatedly established that big brands in particular control prices, pace of production, sustainability and social compliance, human rights outcomes, and most importantly, the compensation of workers in the industry. the factories.
Valentine Carbajal, an LA factory owner featured in CBS Morning’s recent exhibit on the city’s sweatshops, described to reporters how brands underpaid him, and therefore in turn underpaid his workers. The way it works is that brands pay a factory a certain amount of money per item of clothing, and the factory pays the workers out of that lump sum. A woman sewing a stack of dresses said she only earns $ 200 per week (garment workers work an average of 60 hours per week). The responsibility points in one direction: brand pricing.
And yet the law, as currently drafted, allows brands and retailers to turn a blind eye to the impact of their own purchasing practices on people in the supply chain. They are not responsible.
Take, for example, the all-too-typical response from Fashion Nova’s legal counsel, who said The New York Times
after $ 3.8 million salary violations were discovered at their LA factories last year: “Any suggestion that Fashion Nova is responsible for underpaying anyone who works on our brand is categorically false .
SB62 would finally make this argument null and void.
It would also ensure that taxpayers are not held accountable for missing wages, as they are now.
Who will stay and who will go?
Will unscrupulous brands leave California if the SB62 passes? They’ll be hard pressed to find another LA, with its skilled workforce and a two-week lead time between design and delivery. They increasingly have nowhere to go. The race to the bottom that has characterized the last three decades of fashion is coming to an end.
Two-thirds of North Americans now want responsibly produced clothing. Globally, labor laws are getting tougher and expect more from businesses. The upcoming EU due diligence laws (Germany just passed one) will impose fines on companies for human rights violations in their supply chains. US customs and border control are already cracking down on products made with forced labor.
It should be noted that fast fashion brands and discounters can easily afford to pay minimum wage and stay in Los Angeles as well. Brands pay an average of 73% of what they owe their California factories to meet minimum wage. Raising supplier prices to fill this gap would not be a major demand for large companies like Fashion Nova and Ross Dress for Less. Likewise, Forever 21, another brand that has been producing for years in Los Angeles, would only need an extra $ 5 per item to pay minimum wage to U.S. garment workers. It’s not a budget increase, even for a fast fashion brand.
Once the Garment Workers Protection Act is passed, brands accustomed to the close-eyed approach will have to change. That’s the point. This is undeniably a good thing for workers, for consumers, for taxpayers, for the environment and for society as a whole.
“This means brands need to make more conscious decisions about who they work with. They will have to make sure that they don’t blindly trust the prices that factories are offering them, ”says Birky. This is hardly an onerous request. It’s just a good deal.
Sadly, some parts of the corporate American community would like to preserve California as the world’s last safe haven for sweatshops. The governor of California will hopefully see through their scare tactics.
America doesn’t need to exploit its garment workers to compete.