What is the Garment Worker Center?
The Center is a place for garment workers to organize. There will be monthly educational workshops that explain issues such as wage and hour laws, health and safety regulations and discrimination. Garment workers can also come to find help with their work problems - if they have not gotten paid, if they were fired unfairly or if the factory is engaging in unfair and unsafe practices. The center also provides a space to centralize all the efforts happening against sweatshops and to help garment workers.
How did the Center get started?
The Center was started by a coalition of immigrant rights groups who have been helping workers for many years. The groups received calls from garment workers occasionally and helped them one by one. But none could ever focus on the garment industry because they focus on other low wage industries that include restaurant workers, gardeners, day laborers, etc. Because the garment industry is so huge here - everyone felt like there should be a place that solely focuses on organizing garment workers and fighting the garment industry.
What does the GWC do? What type of services do you provide?
The Center is a place for workers to stop by to pick up information or ask questions. The Center sponsors workshops and intake clinics- where workers can come and speak to a volunteer. We will have information available about issues facing workers such as health care and discrimination. The Center will help workers file their claims when they don't get paid. We will also support workers who want to take actions against unfair employers, manufacturers and retailers and organize with other garment workers.
Are you organizing workers to join a union?
Not directly. Right now the workers are very disconnected from organizing and from even knowing their rights. Most workers do not know about the minimum wage or any laws that protect them. We want to help bridge the gap between workers and organizing and be a first step for workers. Hopefully down the road, workers will want to join unions or create associations but that will take a long time.
Who are 'good' labels right now? How do you know who is good or bad?
You can check http://www.sweatshopwatch.org for the latest campaigns against labels. We ask people to support organized campaigns around certain labels. There are a number of labor organizations which monitor labels and you can find it on the internet. You can't tell who is good or bad just by looking at the label. If garments are made in the US there is a better chance that the worker received a better wage than in another country but it is not a guarantee.
What are typical conditions in a factory?
Factories today are the same as they were in the early 1900's. The machines are crammed into a factory, little ventilation with lots of dust particles in the air, chemicals and machinery are out in the open and workers do not have protective gear, the floor is dirty, there are rats and cockroaches, the bathrooms are locked and dirty, men and women share one bathroom for dozens of workers, there is no clean water and the lighting is bad. Many workers cannot take breaks or must eat lunch quickly. Some cannot go to the bathroom unless they finish sewing a quota. Some workers cannot look up from their machines and are not allowed to talk to each other. Factories are divided by language and race. Workers come in very early and leave late without proper timecards and do not receive overtime. Some workers must take work home after working over 10 hours in a day. The average LA garment worker makes $7,000 a year and does not receive health benefits. They can't even call in sick without being docked pay. Aren't there laws against sweatshops? The U.S. has some labor laws- minimum wage, workers comp, some places have living wage, no child labor - but laws don't help without enforcement. Many garment workers do not know their rights and do not feel safe speaking up. Some do not have documentation which makes them fearful to fight for their rights. Everyone who works has rights - immigration status does not matter. The Department of Labor does little monitoringthey do not have enough staff to cover the entire industry and penalties are not strict enough for violations to be deterred.
Why focus on Los Angeles when labor violations are worse in other countries?
Los Angeles is the home of the largest garment industry in the country. There are over 140,000 workers and 5,000 contractors here. Less than 1% of garment workers are unionized. There is a huge need to be working in Los Angeles.