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The high price of cheap clothes
Apr 11, 2024
Season 9

The high price of cheap clothes

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Why can’t garment workers afford to buy the clothes they make?

For 20 years, “Lorena” (not her real name) was a garment worker at a small factory in Los Angeles’ Fashion District. Every day, she went to work and sewed something like 30 t-shirt collars or 50 backpack zippers, depending on that day’s assignment, and she was paid a few cents per item. That kind of pay is actually illegal now under California’s 2022 Garment Workers Protection Act, which banned the piece rate and required that workers be paid by the hour.

But at Lorena’s factory, nothing changed. Until she decided to take a stand against low wages and tough working conditions: “Tú crees que está bien, lo que no está pagando el patrón, verdad no?” she asked her coworkers. Do you think it’s fair what the owner pays us?

In the second installment of our two-part series on fast fashion, producer Alice Wilder brings us the story of Lorena’s fight for fair pay, and the impact this had on her personal and professional lives.

There are over 40,000 garment workers in Los Angeles, producing huge quantities of trendy clothing at high speed for low prices. But these workers earn so little that they often can’t even afford to buy the clothes they make. Like Lorena, many of them are paid what’s called a piece rate, meaning they’re paid per item they sew, which sometimes ends up being less than minimum wage, and that’s illegal.

Alice talks to labor studies professor Alfredo Carlos about the people who are trying to change the garment industry and the loopholes that still lie in the way. “We don’t have the enforcement capabilities,” explained Prof. Carlos, “and that’s a political choice.” 

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This is Uncomfortable April 11, 2024 Transcript

 

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

 

Reema Khrais: Hey everyone, it’s Reema. So last week, we did an episode about the fashion industry, looking at the ways it drives overconsumption, and this week we’re looking at the other side of the equation: the people who make all those clothes we love to buy and then throw away. 

It’s a topic our producer Alice Wilder has been looking into. She’s been in touch with a garment worker: a woman who we’re calling “Lorena,” which is not her real name. We’re protecting her identity because of a pending legal claim. 

Her story is pretty remarkable, and I’m going to hand off the show to Alice to share it with you. Alright, here’s Alice. 

 

Alice Wilder: One day, Lorena arrived at work, a small garment factory in downtown Los Angeles. Most mornings her bosses would greet her warmly, with a “Hi, how are you?” But not today 

 

Lorena: Ya cuando llegue un día lunes ya está el patrón molesto y el manager molesto ya como que me veían diferencia en ti, presiento cuando una persona te cambia contigo.

[When I went in on Monday the owner, and the manager were upset, I can sense when a person changes.]

 

Alice: You can sense when someone is acting differently towards you, Lorena said. Her bosses were icing her out.

 

Lorena: vea porque el patrón me saludaba: “Hola. ¿Cómo estás?” Todo era diferente.

[Because the owner would usually greet me: “Hello, how are you?” Everything was different.]

 

Alice: Lorena had an idea of why this was happening. She’d recently started to question the low wages at work… complaining to her boss that they deserved to be paid more. Since then, things had changed. She remembers trying to start a conversation with a coworker.

 

Lorena: Dice yo no quiero hablar contigo porque el manager me dijo no hablas con esa señora porque habla mucho. Ella no sabe el precio. Así le dijo el manager

[They said, “I don’t want to talk with you because the manager told me, ‘Don’t talk to that women, she talks a lot, she doesn’t know about the price.’” That’s what the manager told her.]

 

Alice: Lorena says her coworker was like, “I can’t talk to you, the manager says you talk too much and you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to pay.” After that, Lorena said she couldn’t even have a coffee with her co-workers anymore. It was isolating. 

 

Lorena: Yo, cuando llega al patrón, siempre yo me defiendo a él. Siempre hablo siempre por eso. Él no quiere mi presencia ahí porque sabe que yo soy una persona también que no me dejo.

[When it comes to the boss, I always defend myself against him. I always always talk. He doesn’t want me there because knows I’m a person who stands up for myself.]

 

Alice: They wanted her to stay quiet, but if anything it was just making her angrier.  Because Lorena told us, she’s the kind of person who stands up for herself. 

 

I’m Alice Wilder, and you’re listening to This Is Uncomfortable.

The more I thought about fast fashion, how it impacts consumers and the environment, the more convinced I became that we wouldn’t get the full picture until we spoke to a garment worker. 

This type of work has historically been done by the most vulnerable people in the United States: immigrants, mostly women. Most of those workers are in Los Angeles. Over 40,000 people work in the city’s garment factories and they make among the lowest wages in the country. 

One of those people is Lorena. She’s been a part of the industry for over 20 years. Lorena’s story, it’s a story of a woman who stood up not just against a boss taking advantage of her, but a system that’s long profited off cheap labor.

Learning all of this changed the way I think about getting dressed every morning. But more importantly, it gave me hope that with enough courage and persistence, this system could change for the better.

 

Lorena: Me vine de Chiapas hasta aquí. Yo vine a los 17 años aquí en este país. Mi papá estuvo aquí.

[I came here from Chiapas. I came here to this country when I was 17 years old. My dad was here.]

 

Alice: Lorena was a teenager when she emigrated from Chiapas, Mexico. She came to join her father in Los Angeles where he was working in a garment factory. He taught her the skills of the trade.

 

Lorena: Mi papá me enseñó a trabajar en la máquina de overlock.  

[My father taught me how to work on the overlock machine.]

 

Alice: He showed her how to use a complex machine called the overlock. It uses four or five threads at once. 

 

Lorena: Es una máquina especial. Mi papá me enseñó como se enhebra la máquina, como se pone el hilo, como se hace la blusa, se pega la manga… 

[It’s a special machine. My father taught me how to thread the machine, how to attach a sleeve, how to make a blouse…]

 

Alice: Lorena’s father taught her step by step: how to thread the machine, how to attach a sleeve, how to make a blouse. 

 

Lorena: Casi un año tarde de aprender ya con experiencia ya se hacer de todo ahora.

[With almost a year of learning now with experience I know how to do everything now.]

 

Alice: Little by little, over the course of a year, she learned how to use it.

 

Lorena: Pues como uno de niñas de muchacha, pues se siente uno bien porque ya está el aprendiendo. Más experiencia. Voy,  voy sacando más piezas. Voy agarrando más práctica.Voy aprendiendo más, enhebrar la máquina…

[Well, as a young girl, you feel good because you are learning something, getting more practice, making more pieces threading the machine…]

 

Alice: At the end of a long day she felt good. Learning how to manage all the threads, getting faster – it was satisfying. 

But not long after she moved to LA, her dad ended up having to go back to Mexico to take care of the rest of the family, leaving her alone.

 

Lorena: Sí, estuvo él aquí como 10 años y luego se fue para México. Por eso me quedé sola.

[Yes, he was here for about 10 years, and then he left for Mexico. That’s why I was left alone.]

 

Alice: She was taken in by an aunt. Lorena was just seventeen years old, without her parents, having to come up with $100 a month for rent.

 

Lorena: Pagaba $100 la renta y no tuve ese apoyo de una familia. Pero como no, no me apoyaron nadie, no tuve familia. Solo mi papa, me dejo sola aquí.

[I paid $100 rent and I didn’t have the support of a family. But I didn’t have any family, only my father. I was left alone there.]

 

Alice: Lorena knew that she should be going to high school, and she wanted to. But she also had to pay rent, and those traditional teenage jobs many of us had, working fast food or at the mall, those jobs require papers… and Lorena is undocumented, leaving her with fewer options. So she went looking for a job at a garment factory, where hiring recent immigrants is the norm.

 

Lorena: Busque lucha, busque manera como encontrar una persona que me diera oportunidad o me diera chance en la máquina de overlock. 

[I was looking for a job, looking for a way to meet a person to give me an opportunity and a chance with the overlock machine.]

 

Alice: Lorena was in that frustrating place where you need experience to get a job, but can’t get that experience without a job. A lot of people turned her away. Then she met this one factory owner, who, like the others, asked her if she had experience. 

 

Lorena: El dueño me dijo sabes, sabes, trabajar. Tienes experiencia. Yo le dije que no tenía mucho, pero ya sé enhebrar la máquina. No tengo experiencia para que voy a mentir si me dan está bien si no pues ni modo. 

[The owner asked me if I knew how to work, if I had experience. I told him I don’t have much. I know how to thread the machine. I don’t have a lot of experience, to tell you the truth. He said it’s okay.]

 

Alice: Lorena told him, I’m not going to lie, I don’t have much experience… like I know enough to thread the machine. But give me a chance, and I can learn! The factory owner, who she calls “the American” told her…

 

Lorena: Ok, ok, está bien. Me dijo el americano y me dio oportunidad de hacer mochila y hacer bolsa. [“Okay okay, it’s fine,” the American told me, and gave me the opportunity to make backpacks.]

 

Alice: It’s okay that you don’t have much experience. He was willing to take a chance on Lorena and hired her to sew backpacks. He paid her well: twenty five cents per backpack. Remember this was the 90s. But most importantly, he encouraged her.

 

Lorena: Y él me echo la mano. Le doy gracias a dios a ese americano  no se donde está ahora.

[And he gave me a hand. I am thankful to God for the American. I don’t know where he is now.]

 

Alice: She doesn’t know where he is now but to this day she’s grateful to him for giving her a chance. That was the beginning of Lorena’s career in the garment business. She now has over 20 years of experience, and a lot of pride in her work… even if these days, she says the pay isn’t good. 

 

Lorena: Hacer sí, me gusta porque. Como mal pagado. Pues, pues, que se puede hacer, pues es el único trabajo que uno sabe hacer uno aquí. 

[Yes, I like it, it’s poorly paid but what else can you do? It’s the only job I know how to do. ]

 

Alice: That’s because garment workers are typically paid what’s called a “piece rate.” When Lorena is talking about sewing t-shirts, she means one very particular task: attaching the collar to the shirt with the overlock machine. Over and over, for eight or nine hours a day. And she gets paid twenty or thirty cents per collar she attaches, not per hour she spends sewing.

 

Prof Carlos: And so like, if you’re doing zippers all day, you’re getting paid, you know, two cents per zipper that you sew. 

 

Alice: That’s Professor Alfredo Carlos. He teaches labor studies at California State University Dominguez Hills. He told me the piece rate impacts every part of the work day.

 

Prof Carlos: That means you have to be sewing really fast all day long. And, and like, you don’t take into account that, you know, people get tired, you know, your back starts hurting. 

 

Alice: And each time a worker gets up to stretch or have a snack, they lose money. 

 

Lorena: Solamente una vez al baño o dos vez al baño hasta allí, no más. 

[Only go to the bathroom one or two times, no more.]

 

Alice: Lorena said that at the factory where she worked, they were discouraged from using the bathroom more than once or twice a day. Nearly every moment was supposed to be spent working.

 

Lorena: Pero a veces yo tomo líquido, yo tomo agua porque mi salud es lo más importante. 

[But sometimes I drink water, because my health is the most important.]

 

Alice: Lorena drank water during the day anyway, putting her health above the pressure to not step away from her machine. She says sometimes her manager would ask her: 

 

Lorena: ¿Por qué te tardas mucho al baño? 

[Why do you take so long to go to the bathroom?]

 

Alice: Why are you taking so long to go to the bathroom?

 

Lorena: Y claro que sí, voy porque no me están pagando por hora. Me están pagando por pieza. Hago lo que quiera y lo que me están dando así siempre le contesto primero mi salud después el trabajo sin salud.

[Well of course, I go because you don’t pay me by the hour. I’m paid by the piece. I do what I would like because my health is most important. I can’t work without health.]

 

Alice: She’d tell him, “because you’re not paying me by the hour, you’re paying me by the piece, and if I’m not healthy I can’t work.” 

Garment work is hard on people’s bodies. There’s often no air conditioning, and poor ventilation in factories. Lorena told us that was the case in her factory. Many workers report roaches and even a lack of clean drinking water. And then of course there’s the toll that all that sewing takes on a person. Professor Alfredo Carlos saw this up close, his mom was a garment worker in L.A. 

 

Prof Carlos: I looked at my mom and I see sort of like the life she spent doing that work, forty years in garment work, and I see like the impact it had on her body. Like, you know, she has sort of a hunchback. She was sitting every single day. She has bad circulation in her legs. And so part of it is the fact that likeyou’re massively producing, and we live in a culture where, you know, the new thing has to come out quicker: quicker, faster, better. 

 

Alice: Some major brands are shipping out more than a million packages a day, constantly running sales and creating “micro-seasons” to entice customers to keep buying. Here’s how they can make so many pieces of clothing so quickly:

Many major apparel brands, like Forever 21 and Fashion Nova, don’t actually have their own factories. Instead, they have contracts with small factories. Many of those factories are outside of the U.S., but there are plenty in Los Angeles’ fashion district. 

Let’s say I’m starting a fast fashion brand, and I want to get a new line of t-shirts on my website ASAP. I’d get together with a small factory in L.A. and say, “Hey, I want these 50 t-shirt designs made in 10 different sizes, and I need them by next week. I’ll pay you $7 per shirt.” 

If the factory owner agrees, they then decide what to pay their workers. Like, “Okay, you’re sewing on sleeves, you get 4 cents per sleeve. You’re sewing the sides of the shirts together, that’s 5 cents per seam. You’re doing necklines, that’s 8 cents.” These are real numbers, by the way, from a New York Times investigation into Fashion Nova’s labor practices. The small factories all over L.A. produce apparel for multiple brands at the same time. The person making my shirts isn’t on my payroll. There’s a layer between them and my brand. So if there’s some bad PR, like a story about how little workers making my clothes got paid, I as the brand can say, “Hey, go talk to the factory owner, I had nothing to do with how those people were paid.” Professor Carlos put it this way: 

 

Prof Carlos: And so you’d end up with a situation where you have the Spider Man meme, where all the Spider Men are like, pointing at each other. Like, “It’s not me, it’s them!” And they’re like, “Well, we take direction from them.” 

 

Alice: And in the middle of all of this finger pointing are workers like Lorena, who are just trying to survive under the piece rate system. Legally, under this system, workers are supposed to make at least the equivalent of their state’s minimum wage. If they don’t, employers are required to make up the difference. So they’re entitled to the minimum wage no matter how fast or slow they sew. 

A 2021 study found that the average LA garment worker made between four and six cents per piece. So a worker making the high end of that would have to produce 1,733 pieces a day in order to make $13 an hour, which was the minimum wage for a small business in California at the time. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor found that some California garment workers were making as little at $1.58 an hour. What happened to the other $11.42 those workers were entitled to? Their bosses kept it for themselves. 

 

Alice: Can you explain how the piece rate leads to wage theft?

Prof Carlos: Wage theft happens in all kinds of ways, but working at a piece rate is basically, is, is one of the, one of the easy ways for them to steal your wages because, you know, throughout the day of the process, like, you, you can, one: miscount the pieces that you actually make. Like, who’s keeping track of that? If you’re sewing, you’re not, you’re not paying attention to how many you, you do. And so, um, and then because of you know, a lot of their immigration statuses, they take these jobs because, you know, they don’t have a lot of other job opportunities. They’re not going to say, “Oh no, you miscounted,” you know, like you think they’re going to, so there’s like that piece. But also like, it just doesn’t add up to what a minimum wage would be. And, you know, if it’s the only job that you have access to, like, what are you going to say? Are you going to say no?

 

Alice: Lorena shares an apartment in Los Angeles with her partner and daughter. Their rent is about $1600 a month. And they’re always worried about being able to pay the bills. Lorena told us that she got paid in cash. And she and her partner, who worked at the same factory, would only find out if they’d been scheduled for shifts when their bosses called them. 

We asked her what her life would be like with better pay. 

 

Lorena: Pues cambiaría mucho mejor. Viviré a uno mejor. Ya compra su cosa. Ya da uno su gustito aunque sea un parque, ir a comer mango o un helado, tantas cosas se venden en el parque allí. Ya te sientes más agusto porque ya no tienes esa preocupación 

[It would change a lot. I would live a better life. I could buy things, I could treat myself in the park, I could eat mango or ice cream that the vendors sell there.  I would feel more comfortable because I could pay my rent, pay my bills and wouldn’t have worries.]

 

Alice: Lorena wants to walk through the park with her partner and daughter, past people selling ice cream and mango, and buy some, without stressing about whether she could still make rent. 

 

Lorena: Porque ya tienes un salario que está ganando mejor.

[If I had a salary, my life would be better, I’d be earning more.]

 

Alice: With dependable income, life would be better. For a long time, that felt like a fantasy. But in 2022, everything changed..or at least it was supposed to. That’s after the break. 

 

[AD BREAK] 

 

Alice: Welcome back, I’m Alice, a producer for This is Uncomfortable. For years, garment workers and their advocates had been working with California lawmakers to draft a piece of legislation. If passed, it would make two major changes: First, it would deal with that Spider Man problem Professor Carlos was talking about: brands and factories blaming each other for how little workers get paid. 

Prof Carlos: This actually groups them all together and says, no, you guys are connected like that you hire them. So you have a responsibility to hire people who are going to, you know, meet the basic standard of like working conditions that we set in California.

 

Alice: And it would eliminate the piece rate system for garment workers, giving people like Lorena the chance to earn a livable wage, so she could afford small luxuries like buying mango at the park. The bill had plenty of opposition. A similar bill to end the piece rate failed in the California legislature a few years back, and business groups rallied to make sure this bill wouldn’t pass.

 

Ashley Hoffman: On behalf of the California Chamber of Commerce, respectfully in opposition to SB62 as a job killer…

 

Alice: They argued that existing laws already address these issues, and that the piece rate actually benefits workers. They also warned that putting more responsibility on brands would cause them to stop manufacturing in California. Which was also the argument on the floor of the state assembly…. 

Rep. Heath Flora: We want to talk about wage theft? Wage theft is when all the jobs move out of the state. If we want to keep our Californians working, and we need enforce the laws that are on the book, and we need to make California a state that is business friendly.

 

Alice: It was time to vote on the bill that could change everything for California garment workers

 

Shirley Weber: Ayes: 29. Nos: 9. The measure passes.

 

Alice: Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law. On New Year’s Day of 2022, the law now referred to as the Garment Workers Protection Act, the first of its kind in the United States, went into effect. Overnight, paying garment workers by the piece became illegal. And brands would be held responsible for making sure their clothes are manufactured in safe factories that pay their workers fairly.

 

Alice: It seems like a huge win. Why did it take so long for this to be in place for workers?

Prof Carlos: I mean, it takes a really long time to move, um, you know, against multibillion dollar corporations, you know. You’re talking about, you know, like some of the like, you know, the like biggest brands in the world, and they all use these mechanisms. And that’s where all of their profit comes from, exploiting workers. 

 

Alice: Shortly after the law passed, Lorena’s boss gathered all her co-workers into a meeting and was like, “This law is bad news for me. If I have to pay you hourly I might have to close this factory.”

 

Lorena: Hubo una junta y nos dijo que que ustedes apoyamos y les apoyaré, dijo él, porque no sé si voy a seguir trabajando. Tal vez voy a cerrar. 

[There was a meeting and he told us “If you support me, I’ll support you,” he said “I don’t know if I’m going to continue working, I might close the factory.”]

 

Alice: Lorena says that he offered them a choice: support him by accepting a piece rate or lose their jobs entirely. Professor Carlos told me that clothing manufacturers are increasingly leaving the U.S., to work in countries with even fewer regulations. So for Lorena and her co-workers, losing their jobs at this factory would mean competing for the few garment jobs left in L.A. 

 

Lorena: El patrón nos había prometido que si va mejorar. Bien, entonces probablemente voy a pagar por hora por usted porque me apoya. 

[The owner promised us “if it gets better, I’ll probably pay you per hour because you support me.”]

 

Alice: To sweeten the deal, Lorena says her manager promised that if they accepted the lower pay for a while, that when things got better, he’d eventually pay them by the hour. Lorena says she and her coworkers agreed to help their manager.

Then, one day while she was at work, her boss got word that the factory next door was being raided by the authorities. Lorena says her boss was afraid they would be next

Lorena: Él tuvo miedo, cerró la fábrica un momento como dos horas… 

[He was afraid, he closed the factory for about two hours….]

 

Alice: She says the manager instructed everyone to turn off their sewing machines, hide in the kitchen and not make any noise. 

 

 Lorena: Nos dijo que nos fuéramos, que no naciéramos ruido mas que cierran la puerta y apaguen la máquina dijo y nos metimos en la cocina que no orieran ruido.

[He told us to leave, don’t make noise, close the door, turn off the machine, we hid in the kitchen to be sure there was no noise.]

 

Alice: They stayed there for two hours, until they were in the clear. Lorena and her co-workers made good on their promise to support their manager. Now it was time for him to hold up his end of the bargain. 

 

Lorena: No nunca! Él nunca nos pago por hora. Yo nunca me gusta tampoco decir las cosas mentira es la verdad. Nunca nos pagó por hora.

[No, never! He never paid us per hour. I don’t like to lie, to say things that aren’t true. He never paid us per hour.]

 

Alice: I don’t like to lie, Lorena said, he never paid us by the hour, never. Lorena and her co-workers aren’t alone in this. The U.S. Department of Labor found that in 2022, after the passage of the Garment Worker Protection Act, 32% of garment manufacturers in Southern California continued to pay their workers a piece rate.

 

Alice: What are the loopholes in the system? Because it sounds like she was still getting paid a piece rate even with the law in place.

Prof Carlos: It’s not a loophole, it’s an enforcement hole. We don’t have the enforcement capabilities and capacities to enforce a lot of the laws that happen. So we have to bolster our enforcement capacity, and that’s a political choice. 

 

Alice: There is a way for workers to raise alarm bells about employers not following the law, stealing their wages. But the nonprofit newsroom CalMatters did really great reporting on this, and they found that the people processing these claims are so understaffed that it takes them 800 days to even respond to a claim of wage theft. That’s over 2 years.

And if, after all that time, they find that someone was indeed a victim of wage theft, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever get back the money their employer stole from them. That means a lot of employers are getting away with wage theft. 

 

Prof Carlos: I was looking at, you know, some of the penalties are really weak. It’s like 200 per employee per pay period. So like, one of the loopholes is, this is part of internalizing the cost of production. Um, where like, you know, if you get caught, it’s not that much money, so you’ll just wait to get caught and hope you never do. But if you do, it’s just a part of the cost of doing business.

 

Alice: Since the law took effect in January 2022, two factory owners have been charged with a felony for wage theft. 

 

Prof Carlos: which I was really surprised by, honestly. And I think California’s really trying to take the lead in saying, hey, listen, you’re breaking the law, and paying a fine isn’t enough. 

 

Alice: That’s progress. But there have been no other felony prosecutions since then. Lorena couldn’t afford to wait for policy changes, like more state funding for enforcement. She said that her bosses would tell her that hourly pay was coming, she just had to be patient. After a while, Lorena realized that the money they promised was never going to arrive. She felt betrayed. Just talking about this, Lorena becomes indignant.

 

Lorena: Y yo y qué? No tengo necesidad, no tengo hambre. Tengo también necesidad tanto como el patrón, tanto como el manager, todos tenemos necesidad.

[And what about me? I don’t have needs? I am not hungry? I have needs, just like the owner, just like the manager. We all have needs.]

 

Alice: “And what about me?” she says. “Don’t I have needs, don’t I need to eat? I have needs the same way the boss does.” If Lorena wanted to get paid, she’d have to take matters into her own hands. 

Shortly after the law was passed, Lorena says this one co-worker came to her and was like, “Hey, my pay has gone down. I only made $280 for six days of work.” When Lorena went in to pick up her pay she was shocked. She’d gotten only $170 for three and a half days of work. Usually she’d get around $240 for that amount of time. She also suspected that her boss had been undercounting the number of items she’d been sewing. Lorena got her coworkers together and asked them:

 

Lorena: Un día junté con los compañeros ahí. Tú crees que está bien, lo que nos está pagando el patrón, verdad no?

[One day I gathered the employees and asked them, “Do you think it’s good what the owner is paying us?”]

 

Alice: “Do you think everything is OK here? That the boss is paying us fairly?” 

 

Lorena: Es que cuando me salío mal, me salió decepcionado. Me pagan el viernes y me pagaron $170. Y, y ya los de compañeros, le dije está pagando barato el patrón. Hay que hablar con él. Hay que decir.

[And that’s when I felt bad. I felt betrayed. I was paid on Friday and was paid $170. And I told my coworkers the boss is paying very little. We have to talk to him. We have to do something.]

 

Alice: Lorena encouraged her co-workers to speak up about what was going on. And that’s when her co-workers and manager started to give her the cold shoulder. They wouldn’t greet her at work anymore in their usual way. And none of her coworkers were backing her up. I wondered if she was frustrated with them 

 

Lorena: Porque me sentí mal. No, ellos tienen miedo.

[I felt bad, they were afraid.]

 

Alice: Lorena says it felt bad to be out there on her own, but her co-workers were afraid, which she understood. What she was mad about was the fact that her manager clearly gave preference to the workers who kept their heads down.

 

Lorena: Es lo que le gusta el patrón de las otras compañeras que no hablan, que no platican, no salen, no, no como no se defiende, solo se quedan calladas así.

[The manager likes them because they don’t talk so he gives them work, they don’t defend themselves, they stay quiet.]

 

Alice: And Lorena stopped getting as many calls to come into work. She called to ask her boss what was going on, but Lorena says, he wouldn’t answer the phone. Finally, she confronted him. Lorena told him: 

 

Lorena: Hay un Dios que ve todo lo que estás haciéndome. Todo en esta vida se paga lo que hace.

[I told him there’s a God who sees everything you’re doing to me.]

 

Alice: “There is a God, who sees everything you’re doing to me. And it’s not right. I’ve worked for you for three years, and this is how you treat me?” 

 

Lorena: Entonces lo que siembra lo que cosecha, le dije yo a él, él no más.

[Everything in this life is paid for. You reap what you sow.]

 

Alice: She warned him: “You reap what you sow. Enough, you don’t get to treat me like this anymore.” 

 

Lorena: Y se rió. Él lo más se ríe

[And he laughed in my face.]

 

Alice: And then he laughed in her face. She was furious. 

 

Lorena: Yo le dije yo, yo tengo derecho. ¿Por qué? Porque estoy sacando producción y quieren bien hecho el patrón y donde está pagando está pagando una miseria. Eso no es justo. Le dije yo al manager.

[I told him, I have rights. Why? Because I am producing, and the boss wants the work well done and what they are paying they are paying a pittance. That is not fair, I told the manager.]

 

Alice: She told her manager, “I have rights. I’m the one making the clothes. The factory owner wants good quality work, and he wants it done quickly. But the pay is miserable. That’s not right.” Lorena told us that her manager went to the factory owner, his boss, and basically said, this lady is a troublemaker.

 

Lorena: Ya no ya ya ya al manager ya no me quería dar trabajo. Me hacía a un lado, llegaba más gente y entraba otra persona. Trabajar en le daba más prioridad a ellos que a mí. Sabiendo que no hay trabajo.  

 

[The manager didn’t want me to work there. They called another person. They gave other people priority over me. After that, I didn’t have work.]

 

Alice: Soon after, her partner, who also worked at the factory, started to get his work cut back. 

 

Lorena: Y también así hicieron su vida de imposible también mi pareja 

[And that’s how they made my partner’s life impossible too.]

 

Alice: Lorena says they made his life impossible. She was furious that her partner was being punished for something she had done. The calls to schedule shifts stopped entirely. They had both lost their jobs. 

 

Lorena: Sí, me dio coraje y tengo, eh, necesidad, pagar mi renta, mi comida, todo. Pues siente uno sin ganas que te baja tu tu motivación. Tu ánimo.

[Yes, I have needs, to pay my rent, my food, everything. Without that I had no motivation. My mood was low.]

 

Alice: Lorena felt depressed. With both her and her partner out of a job, she didn’t know how they were going to be able to pay rent or buy groceries. 

 

Alice: What kind of legal recourse do workers have if they’re retaliated against?

Prof Carlos: So there is legal recourses because you can’t be fired for what’s referred to as protected labor activity.

Alice: Professor Alfredo Carlos again. 

Prof Carlos: People are more protected when they belong to a union or when they engage in collective action. So you don’t have to be in a union to get that.

 

Alice: Okay so what Lorena was doing – talking to her coworkers, demanding fair pay – is legally protected. It’s not a fireable offense. 

 

Prof Carlos: The thing is you have to hire lawyers, and this is what makes all of the enforcement really hard is that, like, it takes resources that a lot of people don’t have. Even the Garment Worker Center, even though they’ve been doing a lot of amazing work, they’re always like, you know, the money goes to defending people, but it’s still minimal compared to what the needs are.

 

Alice: The Garment Workers Center is an organization focused on ending sweatshop conditions in L.A.’s factories. They connected us with Lorena for this story. And they’re one of the groups that helped make the Garment Worker Protection Act state law. 

Throughout the summer of 2023, while she was losing shifts, Lorena and her partner had started looking for help. One day Lorena’s partner brought home one of the Garment Workers Center’s fliers. It was advertising a coffee hour for workers who wanted to learn about their rights. They decided to call. 

 

Lorena: Mi pareja llamó y preguntó qué nos puede de qué se trata y que se que se puede hacer 

[My partner called and asked if they could help us and what they could do.]

 

Alice: A woman named Santa picked up the phone, she was a former garment worker. Santa reassured Lorena that what happened to her was wrong, that she shouldn’t give up. They met in person, and Lorena shared her fears: that her boss would tell his industry friends not to hire her, making it impossible for her to get work. Lorena and her partner are both undocumented and she says she was also afraid that reporting wage theft to the authorities could draw the attention of immigration. Santa told her:

 

Lorena: No, no se preocupe, no tenga miedo. Usted está defendiendo su derecho,  Pero tú no tengas miedo. Ya deja ese miedo. Me dijo ella es por la razón. Ella me motivó y me dio valor de estar aquí. 

[She said: “don’t be worried, don’t have fear, you are defending your rights. Don’t be afraid, leave that fear behind.” She motivated me to be here. She told me to leave the fear and gave me strength to be here.]

 

Alice: “Don’t worry, leave that fear behind. You are defending your rights.” The two became friends. Lorena credits Santa with giving her the courage to be doing this interview with us. The Garment Workers Center filed a wage theft claim on Lorena’s behalf. Big picture: progress is being made for garment workers in LA. But that doesn’t get Lorena and her partner their jobs back. Earlier this year, the State of California invested $18 million dollars to fund wage theft prosecutions. And the Garment Workers Center, along with many other groups, is pushing for a federal version of California’s law. It’s called the FABRIC Act. 

Today, Lorena is working a few days a week, cleaning houses. 

All this, the steps forward, but also the unresolved injustices are things Professor Carlos thinks a lot about. He’s the son of a garment worker, and is now a college professor. A lot of people would call that the American dream. But he doesn’t see it that way. 

 

Prof Carlos: Another reason I like teaching and labor studies is that, like, it’s not enough for me to have made it out. It’s not enough for me to, like, 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? That the struggle doesn’t become the defining characteristic of why you deserve a decent life?

 

Alice: As Reema and I talked about last week, individual choices, like mending clothes or thrifting, are one way to disrupt the fast fashion system, but Professor Carlos says a bigger shift is needed. People at the top of the industry need to make different choices. 

 

Prof Carlos: The economy is built with people, people make the stuff. People decide how much the stuff costs, how much the stuff they’re going to, how much of the profit they’re going to take home or what their, you know, bottom line wants to look like. 

 

Alice: He said that billion-dollar brands could internalize the cost of paying workers fairly, taking a relatively small hit to their profits. 

 

Prof Carlos: We can debate on how much they should get, you know, we can disagree on the percentage, but like there’s no reason why workers can’t get more. 

 

Alice: When I listen to Lorena tell her story, I hear someone who refuses to stop speaking up, even though it’s cost her a lot.  

 

Lorena: Pues la verdad, pues estoy aprendiendo muchas cosas. Aprendo mis derechos. Ya le estoy dejando el miedo. Ya soy una persona fuerte.

[I’m fearless, I’m strong, I am learning about my rights. I am leaving my fear behind. ]

 

Alice: Lorena told us, I’m fearless, I’m strong, and I want my coworkers to know that we have rights, we can defend ourselves and speak up. 

 

Lorena: Pues un patrón un manager que nos quiere ver menos que nos quieren tratar como esclavos. Como sea, como que no tenemos valores, pero sí tenemos valores, somos iguales, somos hijos de Dios.

[The managers, owners see us beneath them, treat us like slaves, they think we don’t have value, but we do, we are all equal, we are children of God]

 

Alice: “The factory managers and owners think we’re beneath them,” she told us. “They treat us like slaves, like we have no value. But we do! We are all equal, we are children of God.” 

At the very end of our interview, after we’d finished asking Lorena all our questions she turned to her friend Santa, from the garment workers center. Lorena’s voice sounded way more relaxed than it had been the whole time.

 

Lorena: Hice bien más o menos?[I did good? More or less?]

Santa: Si? Ay voy ay voy [Yeah? Okay, I’m coming]

Alice: “I did good? More or less?” Lorena asked her friend.

Lorena: Es verdad lo que dije. Me desahogue… lo que me hicieron. Hay muchas cosas[It’s true what I said, I let all out, what they did to me…. There’s so many things.]

Alice: “It’s true, what I said. I let it all out, everything they did to me.”

Santa: Si fue buena historia. [Yeah it was a good story.]

Alice: “Yeah, you did a good job,” Santa responded. And they high fived on their way out of the studio. 

<high five and giggles>

 

Reema: Alright that’s all for our show this week. If you have thoughts about this story, or just want to write us a note about what’s on your mind, you can always email us at uncomfortable@marketplace.org. We love hearing from you all. 

If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends, leave a review, rate us on whatever app you’re using. That stuff really does help us out, and it helps bring our show to new listeners. 

Also be sure to check out our newsletter this week. We’ve got a bonus Q&A with Professor Carlos about his mom’s experience as a garment worker and how that shaped his career. If you’re not already signed up, you can do that at marketplace.org/comfort  

 

Alice: This episode was written and reported by me, Alice Wilder. I produced it with Sophia Paliza-Carre and Jasmine Romero. Jasmine conducted our interview with Lorena in Spanish. Thank you, Jasmine. Sophia Paliza-Carre edited this episode. We had help from Reema Khrais, Hannah Harris Green, and our intern Marika Proctor. Ana Dapuetto helped with translation. Zoë Saunders is our senior producer. Sound design and audio engineering by Drew Jostad. Bridget Bodnar is Marketplace’s Director of Podcasts. Francesca Levy is the Executive Director of Digital. Neal Scarbrough is Vice President and general manager of Marketplace. And our theme music is by Wonderly. Special thanks to Nohemi Ramirez, Ben Carroll, Alex Smith, Nico Dubreuil, and Rolando Rodriguez.

 

Reema: Alright, we’ll catch you all next week… for our season finale!

 

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