‘Made in the USA’: Sweatshop Conditions Rampant in Los Angeles Garment Industry


Labor issues in the garment industry are widespread around the world, and an investigation in Los Angeles has revealed it’s rampant among Made in the USA products as well.

More than $3 million in back wages are reportedly owed to more than 1,500 garment industry workers based in the Los Angeles area, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The investigation found that the back wages come out to $1,900 per laborer, “the equivalent of five weeks of typical pay,” reports the Times. “The cases revealed Los Angeles workplaces with ‘all the features of a sweatshop.’”

The situations were shocking: Some of the work environments included “shaky elevators with flickering lights” and the sewing employees “were paid 9 cents per piece of clothing stitched — a rate that often falls below minimum wage,” the Times reported, and some of the employees’ pay stubs “could be redeemed only at check cashing stores that charged fees.”

With much of the garment industry moving its labor to countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, Los Angeles’ garment factories have dramatically decreased in the last two decades. But it’s still employing more than 46,000 workers, making it the second-largest manufacturing industry employer in the area, behind transportation equipment, and the wages are almost half the countywide average of $1,161, reports the Times.

The contractors cited for owing back wages work with some of the nation’s best known brands that boast their Made in the USA products, including Macy’s, JC Penney and Kohl’s, and according to the Times, “The Los Angeles garment industry runs on a system in which retailers order from manufacturers, who rely on a network of subcontractors to cut, dye, sew, trim and finish items. Profit margins are slim and competition is intense.”

Many of the contractors are willing to pay the penalties over labor issues because paying the penalties is cheaper than paying the people what they’re rightfully owed.  And even when the issue is identified through an investigation, workers aren’t guaranteed payment. According to the Times, a report released earlier this year by the UCLA Labor Center and the National Employment Law Center “found that it is very difficult for workers to recover unpaid wages, even when the state rules in their favor. From 2008 to 2011, workers recovered only 42% of about $390 million in unpaid wages verified by the state, the report concluded.”

Since 2009, there have been more than 1,600 Labor Department investigations of the garment industry in Los Angeles, with 89 percent of those investigated resulting in violations.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.