Garment factories in the Los Angeles Fashion District are dusty, hot, poorly ventilated, vermin-infested and unsafe, according to a new study by researchers at UCLA.

They are also fire traps, where managers block or even lock factory exits with employees inside.

“I think we knew things were bad, but we didn't know they were this bad,” says Mariela Martinez, an organizer with the Garment Worker Center, the organization that conducted surveys with 307 garment workers for the study.

What most alarmed Martinez was that 42 percent of the workers reported that exits and doors in their shops were regularly blocked. Over the weekend while preparing for the report's release, Martinez and her colleagues watched the news of the Oakland warehouse fire that claimed the lives of 36 people at the converted artist studio known as the Ghost Ship.

“They were reporting about how there were only two exits in the warehouse. And the folks upstairs in the building, by the time they realized there was a fire, the stairway was blocked with smoke and they couldn't get down,” she says. “I was thinking about the garment shops.”

Martinez says she has observed garment factories in which the staircase or doors were blocked or locked on several floors. “It's alarming to think what would happen if there were an earthquake or a fire.”

The UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education produced the study, called Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories: Health and Safety in Los Angeles’ Fashion Industry. The study focuses specifically on health and safety issues. It compares the management practice of blocking exits in L.A. garment factories to those of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York, which killed 146 garment workers in 1911.

The research team was made up of organizers and volunteers from the Garment Worker Center, and they surveyed workers before and after factory shifts, on the street and at bus stops. The report mentions the challenges of interviewing garment workers, who tend to be hesitant to discuss their
experiences for reasons having to do with their precarious work arrangements and immigration status.

“We designed the survey so it was really quick to do outside the factory while people waited for buses,” Martinez says. “We went out, explained who we were and tried not to ask too many questions about who the employer was.”

The study found that 72 percent of respondents indicated their factories were poorly ventilated, a problem that made the interiors excessively hot throughout most of the year and polluted the air with dust that made it difficult to work, and even to breathe. Basic hygiene in the factories also was lacking: 47 percent of workers observed that workplace bathrooms were soiled and unmaintained; 42 percent reported having seen rats and mice in the factories where they sew, trim and press.

“This is right in the heart of the Fashion District of Los Angeles — 20 blocks from City Hall, if not less,” says Janna Shadduck-Hernández, one of the study's authors, who is a project director at the UCLA Labor Center. “Take a nice walk past the bars and restaurants on Spring Street and you can see and hear these factories. You don't have to look too hard; they're all over.”

Credit: Courtesy of Garment Worker Center

Credit: Courtesy of Garment Worker Center

Last month, the U.S. Department of Labor found that garment manufacturers in Southern California were not in compliance with basic federal workplace protections 85 percent of the time. The department conducted 77 investigations at randomly selected garment manufacturers and recovered $1.3 million in back wages for 865 workers.

The manufacturers were mostly making clothes for what the UCLA report calls “fast fashion” bargain retailers like Ross and TJ Maxx. Additionally, the UCLA report mentions as serial violators retailers such as Forever 21, Wet Seal, Papaya and Charlotte Russe.

“Eighty-five percent noncompliance means the competition for that labor is very weak,” says Jessie Konenberg, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, who has represented garment workers in wage and hour claims against manufacturers. “If you're a garment worker, you can't say the conditions are so abysmal or the misconduct is so terrible, I'm going to go across the street to a better actor. That better actor doesn't exist in this industry.”

Garment manufacturers tend to compensate their workers on the piece-rate system, paying to incentivize them to work as quickly as possible. It rarely equals the minimum wage. Earlier this year, the Garment Workers Center found that contractors making clothes for Ross in L.A. were paying their workers piecemeal wages that amounted to between $5 and $6 an hour. The California minimum wage is $10 an hour and the federal minimum is $7.25 an hour.

The California Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 71 percent of cut and sew workers in Los Angeles were born outside the United States — 47 percent are Latinos and 24 percent are Asian. The Asian workers are mostly Chinese or Korean, Martinez says, and the Latino population is increasingly made up of workers from countries in Central America.

“It's one of the first places where people find work when they first come to this country,” says Martinez. “Which is why there's so much opportunity for employers to take advantage of folks who have high need and might not know they're entitled to the minimum wage. Even though they are.”

Though employment in the garment sector has declined since 1995, the UCLA report found, it still consists of about 45,000 workers. The report's authors say that Los Angeles has the largest cut and sew apparel base in the United States and call it the center of the country’s garment manufacturing industry.

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