What California’s new law means for garment workers and businesses

Caroline Champlin Nov 11, 2021
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Garment worker Francisco Tzul has recently started working for a sewing contractor that pays an hourly wage rather than a piece rate. Caroline Champlin/Marketplace

What California’s new law means for garment workers and businesses

Caroline Champlin Nov 11, 2021
Heard on:
Garment worker Francisco Tzul has recently started working for a sewing contractor that pays an hourly wage rather than a piece rate. Caroline Champlin/Marketplace
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Lonnie Kane stands in front of garments hanging on a rack in the Karen Kane facility in Los Angeles.
Lonnie Kane started the Los Angeles-based apparel company Karen Kane with his wife in 1979. (Caroline Champlin)

In the sample room of Los Angeles clothing brand Karen Kane, a worker is cutting out pieces of blue and white striped fabric for a dress. The boss, co-president Lonnie Kane, is watching.

“This is only making one garment. That’s all we’re here to do,” Kane said. “It’s going to go back to Karen [his wife] and her team to see if it looks like what they imagined … if not, they throw it on a reject rack and start over.”

The blue and white pieces are cut, layered with another fabric and placed on a fusing machine, which lets out a long hiss.

This dress is in development for Karen Kane’s spring 2022 line. The company’s clothes are sold in a range of department stores, Kane said, including Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Dillard’s and Belk. They are also sold to specialty stores and on its website.

This design facility is also the first stage of production. Hundreds of identical garment pieces get cut out of fabric, bundled into bags and wait on a receiving dock. 

“Sewing contractors will come in here later in the afternoon and they will pick up the cut work,” Kane said. 

Some of it goes to Mexico, he said, but about 70% heads to nearby workshops around Los Angeles to be sewn together by garment workers who, according to Kane, the company already pays hourly, ahead of the Garment Worker Protection Act, which goes into effect on Jan. 1.

This new law mandates an hourly wage for garment workers and is a major change for both workers and business owners. Here in Los Angeles, a major hub of the U.S. garment industry, many workers currently get paid by what’s called a piece rate, the number of garment pieces they sew together, like sleeves or collars. An as-yet unpublished survey from the Garment Worker Center, a worker rights organization, found that 58% of sewers in the city are still working per piece.

Along with making the piece rate illegal, the new law will also make retailers who sell the clothes legally liable for any wage theft committed by the factories where the clothes are made.

Garment worker Francisco Tzul has worked in Los Angeles for three decades, since moving from Guatemala. Garment sewing isn’t just a trade, he said. “It’s an art.”

Walking in the fashion district in downtown LA, Tzul points to old, often rundown buildings where he’s worked.

“There are many of them around here,” Tzul said. He gestured toward another one. “I got fired two times there,” he said.   

Inside one of these buildings, there’s a long hallway with big workrooms behind iron gates. In one room, people are focused on their machines, turning stacks of cut orange fabric into dresses. In his long experience, Tzul said piecework like this doesn’t add up to much in wages.

Workers turn cut pieces of fabric into garments inside an old building in downtown Los Angeles.
Workers turn cut pieces of fabric into garments inside an old building in downtown Los Angeles. (Caroline Champlin/Marketplace)

“I have been working, like, a lot, a lot of hours in one week. Like 60 hours a week, earning like $300, $350,” he said.  

Under the new law, some workers could be making twice as much as that if they’re paid minimum wage. Tzul wants that for them; he’s already earning an hourly rate.

“I can see the changes now. I can see the difference. Yeah, because I have a little more money in my pocket. I’m at least able to go to a restaurant and sit there and try to relax,” Tzul said. 

He’s hoping to spend any extra money on fashion design classes and maybe even start his own business. 

Muditha Senanayake, a professor in the apparel merchandising and management department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, said the higher cost for labor will put pressure on many small factories.

Racks of different colored spools of thread in a garment factory.
Garment sewing isn’t just a trade, says Francisco Tzul. “It’s an art.” (Caroline Champlin/Marketplace)

“The contractors who have the capability of producing at a lower cost with the systems in place, they will still survive. Those who cannot will go under,” Senanayake said. And, he adds, others could take their businesses elsewhere.

“I know that some companies have already left LA because of, you know, all the regulations and whatnot,” he said.

Even Lonnie Kane, from the LA-based designer Karen Kane, is reconsidering his options. He’s most concerned about the part of the bill that makes stores liable for any garment worker wage violations.

“If it becomes litigious, everybody has something to worry about,” he said.

Kane is worried that just the fear of a lawsuit will make even his longtime customers wary of any brands that sell clothes assembled in California.

“What if a department store decides, ‘Well, Lonnie, you know what? We’ve been doing business for 35 years, but I can’t buy “Made in California” from you anymore.’ I’m basically out of business, to be honest with you,” he said. 

In case that happens, Kane said he’s looking into what factories are available out of state — and out of the country. 

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