U.S. Department of Labor found pay violations in 85 percent of the garment shops operating in Los Angeles, where the workers' average hourly wage last year ranged from US$5.85 to as low as US$2.68.
"Modern-day slavery" was not only found overseas, but also exists in the United States, including in the state of California, local media reported Tuesday, calling for approval of the Garment Worker Protection Act.
The Act is still being mulled over by the state's politicians under pressure from both labor rights activities and employers. Today many workers in Los Angeles are struggling in sweatshops, known for producing clothing items in unsafe working conditions with very poor payment, according to a CBS investigation story that aired on Tuesday.
These workers, at the bottom of the supply chain of the fashion industry, which comprises brand, contractors and subcontractors, garment shops and factories, were usually paid only five or six cents per piece on a system called a "piece rate." They're paid for each seam they sew, each sleeve they make, each piece they complete.
"There is some kind of a modern slavery going on in the sweatshops," Francisco Tzul told CBS News. Tzul, who spent nearly three decades sewing in garment factories in Guatemala, Mexico and the United States, documented many problems in Los Angeles' garment industry, for example, cockroaches running rampant through one facility.
A 2016 investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor found pay violations in 85 percent of the Los Angeles garment shops it looked into, the CBS report said, adding the minimum wage was US$15 an hour in the second largest city of the nation, but those workers' average hourly wage last year ranged from US$5.85 to as low as US$2.68.
A worker paid five cents per piece would have to sew 300 pieces in an hour to meet the minimum wage level, which was almost unattainable, the report said. Meanwhile, contractors or middlemen in the industry also complained that they did not have enough money to pay their workers.
The investigation found that contractors in the fashion garment manufacturing industry supply chain were paid only 73 percent of what they would need in order to pay their workers' minimum wage, the report noted.
California's 46,000 garment makers are "routinely underpaid," receiving US$5.85 an hour on average (and some as low as US$2.68 an hour) while working in "cramped, dirty factories" to make clothes for big global brands, Susie Buell, co-founder of the brand Esprit said in a commentary published Monday for CalMatters, a leading non-profit news website on local politics and policy.
"It's an arcane system that's been in place since my earliest days in the fashion industry, and it needs to go," Buell said, who established the brand with partners in 1960s and sold the company later. The problem must be resolved at its root, as the low prices that brands paid to factories was what's driving the sweatshop conditions, she said.
Last month, Tzul and other garment workers rallied in the California State Capitol to push legislation to make brand-name clothing companies which control pricing -- not just the subcontractors -- subject to increased liability if workers aren't duly paid. The information from the state authority showed Senate Bill 62, introduced in December, was still under amendment in both the Assembly and Senate.
"The garment industry in California is rife with violations of the minimum wage law, overtime laws, and health and safety standards. California has the highest concentration of garment industry workers in the country," the draft bill read, noting garment workers were being paid an average of 5.15 dollars per hour, "well below the minimum wage."
Calling the problem "systemic abuse," the bill will prohibit any employee engaged in garment manufacturing to be paid by the piece or unit except as specified. Among other measures, the bill will also impose statutory damages of US$200 per employee against a garment manufacturer or contractor, payable to the employee, for each pay period in which each employee was paid by the piece rate.
But many brands fought against the bill, saying they do follow the law by paying at least the minimum wage and shouldn't be liable for illegal operators who don't. "Let me ask you a question that should be asked of these factories: If they cannot do it legally and legitimately, why do they even take the order?" Ilse Metchek from the California Fashion Association asked CBS's reporters.
The California Chamber of Commerce opposed this legislation, calling it a "job killer." It said some employers may choose to move out of state to avoid those liability provisions. California Governor Gavin Newsom's office would not say whether he would sign the bill.