Garment workers organize around wage reforms during pandemic
Garment workers in the United States have long rallied around a wage system that they believe effectively keeps them below the minimum wage.
But during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has drawn renewed attention to the wages and working conditions of low-wage workers, they rallied to push to end the so-called piecemeal system. The system is essentially a wage calculation model that pays garment workers for each item produced, rather than an hourly wage as set by federal and state minimum wage laws.
Learn more about WWD
Federal Fair Labor Standards and state wage laws generally set the floor for minimum hourly wages for most regular employees, but worker advocacy groups have increasingly drawn attention to the categories of workers, including independent contractors, agricultural workers and garment workers, who may be paid. under different regimes.
While the federal minimum wage is $ 7.25 an hour – and it is itself the target of efforts to raise it to $ 15 an hour – and the California minimum wage is around 14 $ an hour for large employers, garment workers earn an average of just $ 5.85 an hour, according to the Garment Worker Center.
“We are the hub of domestic manufacturing in the United States, and when the [COVID-19] The crisis began, our garment workers were the ones who quickly mobilized to make PPE, dresses and masks for private and public use, ”said Nayantara Banerjee, industrial researcher at the workers’ rights group Garment. Worker Center, at the Fairchild Media Group Sustainability Summit this month.
“In the meantime, garment workers have been victims of wage theft and work in poor conditions in the deep-rooted sweatshop culture in Los Angeles,” she said.
The Garment Worker Center is one of the backers of California’s bill, The Garment Worker Protection Act, or SB 62, which would end the piece-rate compensation framework for workers in the industry. The measure, written by California Senator María Elena Durazo, is making its way through the California legislature. Banerjee also attributed the momentum around the measure to the organizing efforts of garment workers who rallied for better working conditions.
“No industry will change if workers don’t actively organize to change it,” Banerjee added.
Some experts watching the measure, whose previous bills were blocked, see the COVID-19 pandemic and its widely reported impact on low-wage workers as a potential catalyst for such structural wage reforms.
“Given the confluence of greater attention to the supply chain and the garment industry, both in the United States and overseas, and attention to labor rights in part of the pandemic, I think the law has a good chance of passing, ”said Chaumtoli Huq, associate professor of law at CUNY Law School, who focuses on labor and human rights issues . Huq was not a top panelist and commented generally on the salary framework of the apparel industry in the United States.
“I should say it should be okay,” she said. “In 2021, we should not have categories of workers who are not guaranteed a living wage.”
Efforts to address the fashion industry at the federal level are still ongoing. A proposal from some fashion and nonprofit brands calling on President Joe Biden to appoint a so-called “fashion czar,” a political expert who would advise the administration on oversight of the fashion industry , continues to generate debate in the industry.
At WWD’s Sustainability Summit, Lauren Fay, founder of non-profit group The New Fashion Initiative, advocated for the creation of such a role.
“’Czar’ is a title and a position that was created in times of great need throughout the history of the United States,” said Fay. “And they have some specific jurisdiction and control over different parts of US law, working with different parts of government.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “I think there are a lot of people in administration, and certainly the appointments that Biden made, brought a lot of different people to the table, a lot of different voices, which I think is incredibly important to be true. progress.”
Across the Atlantic, the UK fashion industry is also still grappling with the continued impact of Brexit, whereby the UK officially separated from the European Union after a referendum vote. Many of the formal Brexit changes took effect this year.
“Identity issues have been spread around what this means for the UK going forward,” Tamara Cincik, CEO and founder of the Fashion Roundtable, said at the Sustainability Summit.
“It has been a very difficult time for the industry – the industry in the UK was very much inclined to ‘stay’,” she said, referring to the language of the vote around staying in the EU.
“From a business perspective, this has been extremely difficult for many brands in terms of delivery, delay, paperwork and additional costs,” she said. “And that has also been a challenge for our European partners. So there have been a lot of short term consequences, and I really hope they are short term, and I really hope the EU and UK can get around the table and sort out these issues. .
Sign up for the WWD newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.