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In mid-March, Rosa Martinez found herself without a job.

California had just issued a stay-at-home order in response to covid-19, and Martinez’s place of work — a clothing factory near downtown Los Angeles — was declared a nonessential service. She was surprised then, when in the second week of April, she received a phone call that the factory had reopened. While the spread of covid-19 and the dearth of personal protective equipment have spurred some Los Angeles factories to start manufacturing masks, Martinez was going back to work to cut, sew and trim dresses and T-shirts for fast fashion brands. Seated close to more than 10 other employees, she said, she worked without a mask, without gloves and without knowing whether anyone around her was sick. Out of concern for her health, she left after a week.

“Even if people were sick, they would still work out of necessity,” said Martinez, 49, who is originally from Mexico. “There is no sick leave and they have families to look after and rent to pay.”

According to the Garment Worker Center, a Los Angeles-based workers’ rights organization, around 45,000 people are employed in the Los Angeles garment manufacturing industry, the largest of its kind in the United States. Bolstered by the demands of fast fashion, the industry has thrived in the city thanks to its largely immigrant and often undocumented workforce. Before the pandemic, women — who comprise more than half of garment workers in the city, the Garment Worker Center estimates — faced lost wages or job insecurity because of informal or unavailable child-care services and greater family obligations.

In March, as part of Los Angeles’s response to covid-19, approved manufacturers began sewing nonmedical, cloth masks with an initial production target of five million. While the city is working closely with the ethical fashion brand Reformation, it is unclear which other companies have been approved by the city to produce masks. This lack of transparency means that advocates from the Garment Worker Center have been unable to review whether the other companies involved are in compliance with wage laws and health and safety regulations. Instead, workers, including friends of Martinez, are reportedly sewing masks in factories known for wage theft and unsafe working conditions akin to sweatshops. The L.A. mayor’s office has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

“What we’ve seen is that the cleanliness and sanitation issues that were present prior to covid-19 are still not being dealt with, even for mask production,” said Alex Sanchez, a field organizer with the Garment Worker Center.

Near the center’s office in the Los Angeles fashion district, Sanchez said he has glimpsed workers sewing masks without any protection for themselves, likely amid the same poor health and safety conditions that existed prior to the pandemic. Throughout Martinez’s 25 years in the garment industry, she said she has witnessed dirty bathrooms as well as mice and cockroaches scurrying across floors; she experienced hot summer days in dusty factories without air-conditioning or ventilation. The preexisting health and safety issues were well-documented in a 2016 report by the Garment Worker Center, the UCLA Labor Center and UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health. Because of the nature of the industry, Janna Shadduck-Hernández, a project director at the Garment Worker Center, said that the situation in many factories haven’t improved since that report was published.

A garment worker at a 2017 protest holds up a sign that says, “Stop stealing our health!” (Courtesy of the Garment Worker Center)
A garment worker at a 2017 protest holds up a sign that says, “Stop stealing our health!” (Courtesy of the Garment Worker Center)

“Because corporations are demanding that products be made so quickly and so cheaply, it has produced this system of illegality,” she said. “The industry is rife with loopholes and ways to circumvent the law.”

Los Angeles is often called the nation’s wage theft capital, and the garment industry is a big contributor. Workers are often paid at a piece rate, meaning that their income is dependent on how many garment pieces they sew per day. A worker who is currently sewing masks reported earning around $50 for 10 hours of work. Some companies prefer the piece rate system, believing it incentivizes people to work faster, however, advocates say this kind of fast-paced, stressful work environment can lead to injuries, including musculoskeletal disorders. While Martinez was most recently being paid per week rather than per piece, her hourly rate is just over $6, at best. Piece rates and weekly wages are legal and common across other industries such as agriculture. Employers, however, are required to make up the difference so that workers earn at least minimum wage, regardless of whether they meet the piece rate benchmark. According to Shadduck-Hernández, this rarely happens. Instead, the industry’s reliance on undocumented workers means that many people may not report wage theft violations out of fear, and if they do, factories that are repeatedly cited may simply close up shop to avoid paying back wages.

Over the past couple of years, the U.S. Department of Labor has investigated major brands including Ross and Fashion Nova — two companies for whom Martinez has sewn clothing — for working with factories that wildly underpay their employees. The Department of Labor found that Fashion Nova clothing was being produced in factories that owed $3.8 million in back wages to hundreds of workers, the New York Times reported. But workers like Martinez were never directly employed by retailers like Fashion Nova; they work for the factories that produce the garments. As a result, while retailers may express some concern that workers are not being paid fairly, they’re also able to shirk most responsibility. In 2018, in response to wage theft claims, Ross said in a statement that garment workers were not Ross employees and that the company had “no control over what our vendors and manufacturers pay their workers.”

While Los Angeles’s mask-sewing initiative is still underway, there’s uncertainty surrounding where, exactly, those masks are headed. For factories, said Annie Shaw, the outreach coordinator at the Garment Worker Center, sewing masks is a survival tactic, one that will keep businesses afloat and their workforces employed, even if they are exploited. The alternative for workers is the loss of their family’s livelihood, often without a safety net. The situation is particularly dire for undocumented workers — despite the fact that some pay taxes, they are not ineligible for government benefits such as unemployment insurance or stimulus payments through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act. The Garment Worker Center is working to provide aid to workers, such as delivering groceries to financially stressed families reliant on public transport. While the state of California recently announced aid for the undocumented community, the funding is limited and the need is great.

Until these benefits arrive, Martinez and her husband have been relying on their savings. While she hopes the current crisis will lead to sweeping changes across the industry, she has yet to see anything improve. At the very least, said Sanchez, the Garment Worker Center field organizer, covid-19 has spurred important conversations among advocates, politicians and the public.

“Many people have been trying to weather the storm,” he said, “but everybody has been struggling.”

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