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Kent Smith, executive director of downtown L.A.’s Fashion District Business Improvement District, disagrees.
"The apparel industry is pretty price competitive," Smith tells the Weekly. "It’ll be hard to resist lowering prices. And as the quotas come off we’ll be seeing more wholesalers here, which will drive down prices."
Smith sees both silver linings and safety for the Los Angeles market.
"We have leather jackets made in our districts — China’s lack of quotas will have no effect on us because the craftsmen are already located here. But places like Vernon and northern Orange County will be negatively impacted."
Lonnie Kane, the president of Karen Kane Inc., has his plant, which employs about 200 workers, in Vernon, although he sources about a third of his product with Chinese factories. Kane and his wife, Karen, began their company working out of their Studio City garage 25 years ago and have built it into a respected line specializing in high-end clothing. Like Smith, Kane believes higher-priced American apparel makers, especially in Los Angeles, will survive January 1 without problems.
"The budget end of apparel manufacturing is already gone," he tells the Weekly. "January 1 definitely could be the stake in the heart of moderate manufacturing, of the smaller manufacturer who’s not sophisticated enough to import. And the [textile] guys who make basic fabrics look to be devastated if every khaki and denim product comes out of China."
According to Kane, however, Los Angeles’ rag trade cannot expect any help from city government.
"L.A. is unfriendly to the apparel industry," he says. "It likes the prestige of having a creative industry like Hollywood, but doesn’t want ‘dirty businesses’ like sewing factories. Yet cities tend to lose sight of the fact that we need to have employment at every level and sewing factories provide entry jobs to unskilled and immigrant workers."
Karin Mak, of Sweatshop Watch, a Los Angeles–based garment-worker advocacy group, is equally pessimistic: "The L.A. economy will be devastated as much as the garment industry, because workers contribute to the local economy. Half the industry will stay, and half of it will move — especially if workers try to unionize."
There are, of course, people for whom January 1 is more than a theoretical headache.
"I would sell fruit in the street," says Areceli Ruiz, when asked what she will do if the direst predictions come true. "The worst thing that could happen is that I would be left without a garment job. I’ve cleaned houses, but it’s harder to find those jobs because they want references. I’ve never asked for help from the government even though everyone says we immigrants only want welfare. I pay taxes but get nothing back because I have no Social Security number."
I speak to Areceli and her sister, Alejandra Ventura, through a translator in the Sweatshop Watch offices, a block away from downtown’s bustling Santee Alley retail center — a sprawling market selling low-price clothing, knockoffs and bootleg DVDs. Santee will probably remain untouched by January 1’s quota changes — except that many locally produced garments will be replaced by cheaper imports. The two sisters are Guatemalan immigrants who, along with thousands of others like them, helped build both Santee Alley and the upscale California Mart a few blocks west.
Alejandra, who arrived here in 1986, remembers her early years when she worked side by side with former doctors, nurses and professors — immigrants whose first North American jobs were on sweatshop floors. She knows too well the constant yelling and threats from supervisors, the filthy bathrooms and long hours.
"The bosses think we’re slaves," she says, "that we don’t feel pain or get hurt." Alejandra says her best years came at the end of the 1980s, when she pulled down between $400 and $500 a week, working 10- to 12-hour days. But after the North American Free Trade Agreement, she says, wages in L.A. went down. Today, she only works sporadically, partly because she insists on receiving a taxable paycheck from her employers, as opposed to the lump of cash most prefer to pay. Without a paycheck record, she is ineligible for any kind of government medical care or Social Security benefits.
Areceli and Alejandra live within a one- or two-bus commute from their homes in the MacArthur Park area. Alejandra has five children, two of whom are adults working back in Guatemala, while her sister has one 10-year-old.
Areceli says that when the post-9/11 economy slumped, conditions got worse downtown. Today she makes $243 per week working 10 to 12 hours a day sewing single-needle work on blouses, pants and jackets, plus two and a half on Saturday; she receives one 15-minute break during her workday.
I ask Alejandra what she thinks will happen when the quotas are removed.
"I believe it’s already starting," she says, "because what they pay is less than before. The bosses look for people who won’t speak up, who need to send money back home."
The economic dislocation brought on by the end of textile and garment quotas is only the latest iceberg to appear on the high seas of free trade. Since the Clinton administration inaugurated NAFTA, more than a million and a half American jobs have been offshored as multinational buccaneers move plants and assembly lines to countries whose workers are paid poverty wages. But far from having their living standards raised, workers in the developing world have had what few job safeguards they enjoyed superceded by WTO rules and find themselves competing with workers of even poorer nations.