Apparel industry workers in the US are fighting a battle for minimum wages! And the irony is that the very same retailers who are opposing the move are talking about living wages for garment workers in Asian manufacturing destinations. Labour issues and sustainability are being termed as ‘challenges’ by the new presidential team in America, but when these issues are seen from a sourcing perspective involving other countries, they are ‘non-negotiable’ norms!
In California, a garment worker is earning just US $ 5.15 per hour under a traditional piece-rate wage structure, whereas the legal minimum wages in the state are US $ 14 per hour for employers with 26 or more employees, and US $ 13 per hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees, allowing for incentive-based bonuses. No wonder worker associations are lobbying for justice.
Finally, a bill designed to improve the conditions of tens of thousands of garment workers in California was recently passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and will now move to the Senate Appropriations Committee as it inches its way closer to becoming a law, though the road is still very long. The biggest support for the bill has come in from Fashion Revolution USA, a grassroots group that was formed in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse. In an official statement, Nicholas Brown, Director of Policy said, “This is a monumental occasion for the fashion industry and garment workers state-wide because we haven’t seen any major reform to protect garment workers in over 20 years.”
However, the bill has been opposed by more than a dozen business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Retailers Association, which have labelled the Garment Worker Protection Act as a ‘job killer’. According to them, garment manufacturing has steadily been shifting to cheaper locations and by setting minimum wages ‘so high’ the industry will be adversely impacted.
What the bill – SB 62 envisages is to plug loopholes that allow wage theft in the State’s garment industry by establishing a form of ‘upstream liability’ that holds contractors of garment production responsible for wages, damages, penalties and other compensation owed to the people who make those items—no matter how many layers of contracting are in between. In addition, the bill also seeks to broadly eliminate the piece-rate wage structure, ensuring instead that the workers are paid minimum wages.
This bill is very critical for garment workers in the state with Los Angeles alone being home to 2,000 garment manufacturers, employing more than 45,000 people, according to the Garment Workers Center. Significantly, a majority of the city’s garment workers are immigrant women; hence they are most likely to be undocumented and therefore ineligible for unemployment benefits—who spend 10 to 12 hours each day cutting, sewing and dyeing clothing.
Sadly, the associations that are opposing the bill represent major retailers that are very vocal on worker rights and fair wages in Asian countries. The incidences of buyers pulling out production from various factories because of non-compliances are many and these cases are not only at smaller and relatively unorganised companies, but names of some of the biggest manufacturers in India have been dragged into controversies related to labour issues over the last decade.
To oppose the bill under the guise of saving jobs, is hypocritical, when sourcing destinations have been pleading for respite on continuously increasing wage rates driven by buyers’ perception of what is fair wage that make them uncompetitive, even if they ensure that workers are not being exploited. It is time to retrospect and retailers need to have a universal guideline on workers’ wage that should be on ‘law of the land and not on self-created parameters that differ from destination to destination’.