Made in L.A. is a demonstration of conditions in the global garment business and a challenge to those who would change them. The film shows us why L.A. became known as the “Sweatshop Capital of the U.S.” in the 1990s. Working for $3 an hour in places where Maura says “they throw your dignity to the floor,” she and María and Lupe were part of an American garment sweatshop labor force of about 250,000 when the Forever 21 campaign began in 2001. In my book, Slaves to Fashion, I calculated that the number of garment workers in the 2000s had declined from the 1990s not because conditions improved, but because the industry was migrating away from L.A. and the United States.
The film challenges us as well. The challenge is both personal and political. The three women and the Garment Workers Center staffer, Joann Lo, glow with courage and dedication. Their stories appeal to us across the divides of ethnicity, gender and class. Lupe is inspired to become an organizer; Maura grapples with her shyness; María explains to us how “her whole body hurt” under the abuses of the L.A. sweatshop system. The women maintain their commitment through a long legal struggle, and they come to sense their own ability to change their circumstances. They challenge us to consider our own efforts. The challenge also concerns public policy.
Since 2001 when the Forever 21 campaign began, L.A. has lost over one-quarter of all its apparel manufacturing jobs (now there are only 77,000 jobs). The official hourly wage rate, an overestimate because it is the product of false reporting by contractors to U.S. and California agencies, nevertheless shows a five percent loss in purchasing power (a loss of over $950 per year for L.A. garment workers). Even as the Forever 21 workers won a pledge from that retailer to see to it that their contractor shops would be law abiding, the industry was deserting L.A. Maura says, “It’s hard to find work.” Once made in nearby Mexico, now the kind of low price clothing Forever 21 sells to young people is usually made in Asia.
When the campaign began, the Latina women in L.A. faced abusive conditions in which unscrupulous employers in the United States were competing against other unscrupulous employers in Central America. In 2000, I visited a plant in Managua where cameras were trained on the guarded entrance to the jeans factory and workers were closely questioned if they were seen talking to the union activists at the gate. But even those Latina sisters lived in nearby workers’ districts in their own homes, part of a vibrant community life. In southern China’s export factories, young women live in walled or fenced factory complexes, in single sex dormitories, crowded in rooms with many-tiered bunk beds, and they work even longer hours than the workers in L.A. or Managua. At the outset of the Forever 21 campaign (2000-2001), Mexico and China manufactured roughly equal shares of the U.S. clothing import market. Five years later, at the end of 2006, China manufactured approximately 30 percent of the U.S. clothing market, while Mexico only manufactured about 8 percent.
In the global “rag-trade” there is a “race to the bottom” in labor standards, where China and other low-wage Asian countries define the bottom. To combat the “race to the bottom,” students have demanded that their universities pledge to procure logo t-shirts in factories that allow workers to exercise their rights to form unions. State and city governments have joined a State and Local Government Sweatfree Consortium to insure that taxpayer dollars for uniforms are spent only in factories with fair labor policies. Political leaders and citizens are demanding that we form trade policies that protect workers as well as we now protect the interests of investors. The women of Made in L.A. deserve no less.
Robert Ross is the author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshop. He is a professor of Sociology at Clark University, where he is also the director of the International Studies stream, the elected faculty chair, and the former chair of the Sociology Department. His work has appeared in The Nation, Foreign Affairs, In these Times and other publications.