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The other California vote

September 12, 2021

Eyes are on California this week with the vote to recall Governor Gavin Newsom scheduled for September 14. But I’ve been watching a different vote: a consequential piece of legislation for garment workers’ rights, the Garment Worker Protection Act or SB62, has just passed the California legislature. 

Los Angeles is home to the largest remaining garment industry in the USA, where some 2,000 manufacturers employ over 40,000 people. Brands like American Apparel use the “Made in LA” label to generate cachet. Consumers may think that buying American-made guarantees sweatshop-free clothing. However, many garment workers in California, whether they sew for luxury brands or fast fashion, face exploitative working conditions. Many workers may work 10 to 12-hour days, averaging around $5.50 per hour. This is possible because of an antiquated piece-rate pay system, as described by The Garment Worker Center

Under this pay system, workers earn as low as $.03 per assembly operation (ex, setting a seam, trimming a blouse), which is entirely too low to ever enable a worker to earn the minimum wage per hour. What’s worse, workers often report they do not even know what they will earn from hour to hour and week to week, as rates are set and changed by employers, and it is common for employers to reduce already promised piece rates. Not only does utilizing the piece rate enable – and even justify – sub-minimum wage, but it also creates unsafe working conditions, as garment workers are constantly racing against the clock to complete as many items as possible.

SB62 tackles these problems by abolishing the piece-rate pay system in favor of an hourly wage, making it harder for retailers to dodge accountability in their supply chains, and authorizing the Labor Commission to investigate wage theft in the industry. This would mean workers earn at least minimum wage (currently $14 per hour) and that they would, in theory, have much greater labor protections. That SB62 has gotten this far is down to the efforts of a largely female- and immigrant-led coalition of garment workers, ethical brands, politicians, and activists. 

Structural problems in the US garment industry

I wrote last week about disposability in the global second-hand clothing commodity chain. In the case of garment workers in LA, we can delve into how race, gender, and colonial legacies have shaped the industry. It is interesting to me that there is much more media concern with the fates of largely white, male (coded) coal miners in West Virginia, than the immigrant women garment workers of LA who vastly outnumber them. The visibility of certain labor struggles in the face of global and domestic shifts in production is laced through with assumptions about whose lives matter. IR as a discipline also suffers these limitations: how much room do our dominant theories of political economy have for LA’s garment workers? Where are the women of color among our IR scholars? My contention is that the struggle for SB62 is IR.

In the case of the garment industry in the US, employers rely on a punitive and carceral migration regime to keep wages artificially low.

When thinking of global capitalism, we tend to focus on the free flow of goods and capital across borders. However, the free movement of labor, except in common market areas like the EU, has lagged behind. The restriction on the authorized movement of certain kinds of labor is a feature, not a bug, of global capitalism. In the case of the garment industry in the US, employers rely on a punitive and carceral migration regime to keep wages artificially low. Migration to the US happens, whether authorized or not. Without a pathway to documented status, migrant workers are especially vulnerable. The threat of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement enables wage theft by preventing workers from organizing. Moreover, the role of the US in destabilizing Central America helps to provide a steady stream of desperate people to work in these industries.

Gender factors in strongly here, too: most of the workers in LA’s garment industry are women. Garment workers across the world face sexual harassment at their jobs, and workers in LA are no different. Sexual terror allows factory owners to further coerce workers and prevent them from organizing. SB62 goes a long way in combating exploitation in the industry, but the industry will continue to be shaped by political-economic forces that make people disposable in the search for accumulation.

Who benefits?

Cynthia Enloe’s classic, Bananas, Beaches and Bases, takes us to banana plantations in Central America to show how gender and race operate in global capitalism. She describes the gendered and racialized division of labor on the plantation, with Brown, Black and Indigenous men tasked with harvesting bananas, while racialized women washed the fruit, and men who more closely approximated whiteness oversaw the plantations. The American and European white male agribusiness executives benefited most of all. Take, for instance, the United Fruit Company in the US, which leveraged the might of the US military to create “banana republics” that would protect profits from democratic oversight. For feminist IR scholars, studying the global political economy from the margins not only validates those experiences as IR, but also sheds light on how power operates. It would therefore be remiss not to follow the garment supply chain to its top to examine who reaps its rewards.

Ross, which readers may know as Ross Dress for Less, is a repeat offender when it comes to wage theft from garment workers in LA. After a Department of Labor investigation in 2016, YN Apparel, which made garments for Ross, was ordered to pay 270 employees of its subcontractors $212,000 in back wages. To avoid paying restitution, YN Apparel shut its doors. The Garment Worker Center has waged a campaign for several years to get Ross to pay up, going so far as to picket CEO Barbara Rentler’s penthouse in New York.

Rentler’s annual compensation was approximately $12 million in 2017. #girlboss indeed.

Barbara Rentler stands out as often the only woman on lists of rich and successful businesspeople. She comes in at number 29 on Fortune magazine’s list of most powerful women and is the only woman on Forbes’ list of the 100 most innovative leaders of 2019. Rentler’s annual compensation was approximately $12 million in 2017. #girlboss indeed. These lists make no mention of the fact that the successful rise of Ross against its competitors is dependent in large part on the exploitation of immigrant women.

When thinking about violence and culpability in IR, we tend not to locate it with people like Rentler, or the male CEOs of Inditex (Zara) and H&M, which are global fast fashion powerhouses. Yet, they do great violence against both garment workers and the environment in order to maximize the value from their supply chains. In addition, the skepticism of much feminist and decolonial IR toward the nation-state problematizes what is considered “international” and therefore deserving of our scholarship. The working conditions and agency of garment workers in LA deserves our careful attention for how they reveal the operation of global processes of gender, race, and migration in an ostensibly domestic economic matter. I’ll be carefully watching not just the recall, but whether whoever ends up as Governor signs off on SB62.

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Catriona Standfield is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Worcester State University. Her research focuses on the gendered logics of diplomacy and mediation, particularly at the UN. Her research has been published in European Journal of International Relations and International Feminist Journal of Politics.