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Garment workers rally outside Los Angeles City Hall last year. Getty Images
"This Is Uncomfortable" Newsletter

This is what your clothes cost the people who make them

Alice Wilder, Tony Wagner, and Marika Proctor Apr 12, 2024
Garment workers rally outside Los Angeles City Hall last year. Getty Images

There are over 40,000 garment workers in Los Angeles, producing huge quantities of trendy clothing at high speed for low pay.

These workers earn so little, they often can’t afford to buy the clothes they make. This week’s episode is about a worker at one of those factories, whom we’re calling Lorena. We’ll trace her fight for fair pay and the impact it had on her personal and professional lives.

We got a lot of help this week from Alfredo Carlos, an assistant professor of labor studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills. You’ll hear a bit of our conversation in the episode, but we couldn’t fit everything. Here are a few more edited excerpts from his interview, digging deeper into how Carlos’ upbringing influences his research today.

This Is Uncomfortable: What drew you to this work, researching political economy and Chicano labor movements?

Alfredo Carlos: I grew up in L.A. as a working-class kid. My mom was a garment worker. In a working-class immigrant neighborhood, you grow up with American dream stories like: “You gotta work hard, and you’ll be successful.” It never made sense to me as a kid that the hardest-working people I knew were my parents, and it didn’t make sense that we were living the way we did.

My parents came here to give me a better life — I was undocumented myself. Garment workers, a lot of them are undocumented, and they get targeted by immigration [authorities]. So I remember my mom not coming home, or not being home when she was supposed to, wondering if she got picked up in a raid. There were a couple of times where she was just kind of hiding out with some friends. She eventually made it home and was like, “Yeah, there was a raid and some of my friends got picked up.”

And then I remember my mom bringing home extra work because she didn’t finish it there. I know one of the things we’re sort of discussing here is, like, the piece rate, and I remember it vividly. And it’s also kind of heartening now because I see it on TV shows sometimes now, and they’re actually finally telling some of those stories.

TIU: Oh interesting. Like what shows?

Carlos: There’s a show on Netflix called “Gentefied,” and one of the moms was a garment worker. She brought home piecework, and they showed her standing up to her boss.

One of my interests is the way in which working-class life is and isn’t depicted well on television. An example I’ll give is like, you know, if you saw “Big Bang Theory,” Penny has her own apartment in Pasadena, but she works at the Cheesecake Factory. And you’re like, there’s no way! And so I appreciate it when TV shows will actually depict what people really face in their day-to-day lives. So like when “Gentefied” did that, I appreciated it. 

TIU: In our story, Lorena earns a piece rate at the garment factory where she works instead of an hourly wage. Can you explain how the piece rate works?

Carlos: Garment workers have historically fallen under a classification of workers that are exempted from having to make an hourly wage. Some workers that fall under this are farmworkers and restaurant servers. With servers, the idea is that they’re going to make that in tips, and there’s, like, a debate about, well, who’s paying the worker? Whose responsibility is it?

But the piece rate is basically that you get paid for how many pieces you make. And so, you will have a situation where a person might get paid 8 cents for every thing that they sew. It’s a piece because it’s actually just a piece of the garment. You’re not making the whole thing. If you’re doing zippers all day, you’re getting paid 2 cents per zipper that you sew.

In order to make — I don’t even say a “decent wage,” honestly, because some of these workers are like the lowest paid. Even if you’re trying to make minimum wage, that means you have to be sewing really fast all day long. You don’t take into account that people get tired, your back starts hurting. It’s grueling, backbreaking work, and to get paid 2 cents for doing something, it’s inhumane.

TIU: So how does working at a piece rate lead to wage theft?

Carlos: Yeah, so wage theft happens in all kinds of ways. Working at a piece rate is one of the easy ways for them to steal your wages because throughout the day you can miscount the pieces that you actually make. Who’s keeping track of that? If you’re sewing, you’re not paying attention to how many you do. 

And they’ll change the piece rate. They’ll say, “You know what? We hired you at 4 cents per zipper, but we’re going to change that because y’all are too slow” or whatever. They put it on the individual. “You’re not working fast enough, so we’re going to go to 3.” If it’s the only job that you have access to, what are you going to say? Are you going to say no?

There’s a disconnect with who’s experiencing it and how they report it. People who are doing garment work — they’re vulnerable, Spanish-speaking usually, non-English-speaking. Can they jump on the internet, go and file a claim? As someone who used to have to be a translator for my parents and a negotiator when I was a child, it’s hard. It’s hard to imagine that you have folks who are just going to naturally know what to do and how to report their time and also that they know that they’re being stolen from. A lot of people just expect it.

TIU: How has studying labor and the fast-fashion industry changed your perspective on what you saw growing up?

Carlos: It made it make sense, you know? All those times when Mom brought bags home from work, and me wondering, like, “Why is she still working? You’re home, spend time with me.” I thought she liked to work. But learning about fast fashion made me understand all the suffering that my mom went through, all the sacrifices she made to provide me with a better life. I’m really grateful. 

As a child, you don’t understand why your parents are always tired. You don’t understand why they never have money, why other kids can have Jordans and you can’t. My dad bought me a pair of Jordans because I begged him. And I hate myself for it because I understand now how many hours my dad had to work to buy that pair of Jordans. As a kid, you don’t understand that. You just understand that other kids have Jordans and you want some too. And so it’s one of those things I still feel guilty about, but I understand their struggle. 

There’s kids growing up in the same neighborhood I grew up in under worse conditions because rent is like 10 times what it used to be and wages haven’t gone up that much. And so it’s not enough for me to be successful on my own; it’s how do we create an economy that works for everybody, so that people don’t have to struggle? We struggle for a decent life, but we shouldn’t have to.  

And so for me, that’s kind of what all of this has helped me understand my parents’ story as a part of a larger story of working people just trying to make a life for their kids and family. How do we live in a world where everybody gets to benefit from the work that we all put in?

Defend your splurge with filmmaker Marvin Lemus

Money messes with all our lives, but sometimes the right purchase at the right time can make things a little better. Tell us how you’ve treated yourself lately, and we’ll include the best stories in our newsletter!

Carlos mentioned Netflix’s “Gentefied.” Marvin Lemus was the show’s director, co-creator and co-showrunner. He’s working on his first feature now, and he sent us this shady splurge.

I recently splurged on a pair of ridiculously oversized Burberry sunglasses ($233.31). To me, they kind of look like if a child drew a pair of aviator sunglasses using a really thick, black Sharpie. The lenses are lightly tinted warm. They barely block any sun, to be honest. I remember convincing myself in the store that these “are my new identity.” I already wear a pair of wire aviator style glasses with a transition lens — you know, those glasses that turn dark in the sun. But those have the wonderful quality of rarely getting to maximum darkness, so I’ve gotten used to wearing these semi-dark lenses that make you look a little like you’re in a music video. I went on a journey in the store imagining me wearing these Burberrys on a red carpet. “Look at that guy’s glasses!” “He must be very important.” It’s been two weeks and they’re still sitting in the bag from the store. The jury’s still out on whether or not they will ever be worn again. 

The Comfort Zone

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