The pandemic has redefined what it means to be a superhero. Many of us have a new-found appreciation for the frontline workers risking their lives so we can stay home and stay safe.
As I scan the faces in the media spotlight, I see doctors, nurses, delivery truck drivers, and grocery staff, all donning masks and various forms of protective gear as their daily armors. I can’t help but wonder: where are the faces of the workers tirelessly sewing together countless units of personal protective equipment (PPE), which have become an integral part of our defense against COVID-19?
The faces behind the masks belong to the garment workers, 80 percent of which are women of colour, a group being disproportionately impacted during COVID-19. They often work in high-risk environments and are especially vulnerable to exploitation and poverty.
Over the years, a majority of clothing production has been offshored to Asia. However, the injustice against these workers still persists in the United States, especially in the fashion capital of Los Angeles. There are over 45,000 garment workers in LA, consisting primarily of Latinx and Chinese immigrants who work more than 12 hours a day and earn less-than-minimum wage.
Throughout history, women of colour have played a significant role in powering the economy and shaping labour rights in the U.S. Yet the system continues to oppress and mistreat them.
Now, garment workers, activists, and community leaders stand together at the forefront of the biggest labour law reform that will set the tone for the rest of the country.
Women shaped labour history
Female garment workers have a long-standing history of advocating for women’s and labour rights. International Women’s Day was inspired by working rights protests led by female garment workers on March 8, 1857, which laid the groundwork for the establishment of the first women’s workers union.
The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was an influential organization that harnessed the collective power of working-class women to push for progressive changes in labour laws across the nation. They were the masterminds behind high-profile strikes that negotiated higher wages and new benefits for its members. The union embraced diversity, bringing together women of various social classes and backgrounds.
The Los Angeles Angeles Garment Workers Strike of 1933 is known as one of the first strikes where Mexican garment workers played a prominent role. After a month-long protest at the risk of police arrest, they succeeded in their demands for union recognition, minimum pay and safer work conditions for all garment workers within the union.
In the 1960s, the influx of Latinx and Asian immigrants boosted the garment industry in the US. ILGWU had a record-high membership of immigrants, and was vocal in their support of immigrant rights and offered language-specific services. Despite language and gender barriers, many of these immigrant women learned their rights and began to organize under ILGWU’s umbrella. For many, this was their first exposure to activism. Some would eventually assume leadership roles, paving the path for other workers.
Another defining moment occurred in the 1980s, steered by three Chinese women, Alice and Connie Ip, and May Chen. They organized the largest strike in the history of New York City’s Chinatown. In the spring of 1982, 20,000 garment workers marched down the street of Manhattan to fight for increased wages, health benefits, and childcare services. This was an inflection point for the Chinese immigrant community: they realized the power of collective bargaining and community organizing.
In many ways, the labour rights movement shaped the identity and role of working-class women within the family and in society.
Impact of COVID-19 on the garment industry
The current health crisis has exposed many inequalities and injustice in the system, particularly the exploitation and mistreatment of women from communities of colour.
As the pandemic swept across the globe, businesses halted and brands frantically cancelled their orders. Factories closed down or cut down hours. Individuals lost their jobs or were not paid at all.
The growing demand for face masks offered a glimmer of hope for the garment factories and their workers, who are lending their skills to produce a much-needed essential good. However, working in current sweatshop conditions meant they would be putting themselves and their families at risk every day. Many factories are poorly ventilated and do not offer adequate physical protection or health benefits to the employees.
Unfortunately, many garment workers in Los Angeles, like Maria (whose last name has been removed for anonymity), are struggling financially and have no choice but to go back to the factory.
“My family has struggled so much through this pandemic,” said Maria, a mother of three. “We’ve had to borrow money.”
In July 2020, more than 300 workers at Los Angeles Apparel, a garment manufacturing company producing basic cotton wear, tested positive for COVID-19. With four deaths confirmed, the company shut down three factories.
In LA, 85% of factories are found to be in violation of labour laws. Without workplace safety and job security, many employees are hanging by a thread.
Garment worker rights reform
Garment worker laws were last updated in 1999. Since then, fast fashion has been on the rise. Big-name retailers are taking advantage of legal loopholes to escape liabilities for labour violations down the supply chain. By hiring factories as sub-contractors, the retailers insulate themselves from being directly responsible for the safety and health of the workers, while profiting off of their labour.
To address the health crisis and human rights violations, garment workers and community leaders are driving forward the Garment Worker Protection Act, SB-62 Bill. It will introduce fair pay by abolishing the piece pay rate, an antiquated system that pays workers a unit price of $3-6 for pieces they have completed.
The bill will call for more transparency and accountability from corporations and garment manufacturers, as well as granting the U.S. Labour Commission explicit authority to enforce these laws. These changes will seek to mend the gaping holes in the current system.
Beyond the fine print, it is imperative to remember the people they exist to serve and protect.
Actor Maggie Q, founder of an LA-based sustainable activewear, has been an outspoken advocate for this movement. She delivered a passionate speech at a recent press conference:
“I am the daughter of an immigrant mother and I know exactly what this means to fight for these women. These are my mother, my sisters, my friends — people who have made this country what it is. These women are the backbone of the California economy; women are the backbone of world economies.”
As we examine the rich tapestry of labour history, the contributions of immigrant women of colour cannot be overlooked. If history has taught us anything, it is that we are stronger together.
Be part of the movement
Here are some ways you can support garment workers in LA and across the world.
- Sign the SB 62 Petition: Whether or not you are a resident of California state, your signature matters! Spread the word.
- Tell your brands the change you want to see: Write to your brand or tag them on social media about your concerns, why you choose not to purchase from them, and what you would like to see them improve on.
- Make conscious purchases: Choose to support brands who use ethical business practices and can back up their claims. Do your research and avoid “green-washing.” If you can’t find the answers, contact the brands directly.
- Support the #PayUp Campaign: Garment worker exploitation is a global issue. Support the #PayUp campaign to ensure that workers are paid and supported during the COVID-19 crisis. Demand these brands to act now by tagging them on social media with #ShareYourProfits, and signing the PayUp Fashion petition.
Making Asian American media
We believe that our stories matter – and we hope you do too. Support us with a monthly contribution to help ensure stories for us and by us are here to stay.