“When workers don’t receive the wages to which they are legally entitled, they can’t afford the basics, like food, rent and child care,” U.S. Department of Labor official David Weil told reporters last week at a press conference in Los Angeles to discuss the garment industry.
And in L.A., which dominates the industry, that means thousands of workers are regularly screwed out of life’s necessities. Los Angeles has 5,000 registered garment manufacturers and 50,000 to 60,000 cutting and sewing operators.
Weil, who is head of the department’s Wage and Hour Division, said 221 investigations in the past year found that 1,549 garment workers were stiffed an average $1,900 each (more than a month’s pay) by their employers. That’s $3 million and only includes those workers who managed to get the attention of government investigators.
The garment industry, with its low wages, hard work and crummy working conditions, has historically been populated with immigrants. In Los Angeles, that means a lot of undocumented workers with limited English language proficiency, who have even less leverage in the labor market than their forebears.
The California minimum wage is currently $9 an hour and employees who work more than 40 hours a week are entitled to overtime. Federal officials investigating one complaint found 37 workers making women’s clothing being paid $270 for an average of 50 hours work, or $5.40 an hour.
“We will uphold the American promise of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” David Weil, administrator for the Wage and Hour Division, told reporters last week.
The 2014 statistics were similar to historical averages, which offer no evidence of an effort to uphold America’s promise. When the department investigates a complaint it usually finds something to be complained about. Eight-nine percent of the 1,600 cases that were investigated in Southern California since 2009 found a labor violation. But the 221 cases cited by the department in fiscal year 2014 were 114 less than the year before and 150 less than 2009.
A Labor Department survey of Southern California garment factories in 2000 found that two-thirds of them did not comply with federal minimum wage and overtime laws. And that was before the explosion of global trade pitted American garment workers against Asian counterparts, who were paid pennies.
At the time, Employment Standards Administration’s Wage and Hour Division administrator T. Michael Kerr Kerr said, “We need to impact all levels of the industry—contractor shops, manufacturers and retailers—to help end the exploitation of garment workers in the United States.”