Exploitation and Wins in the Garment Industry

An Interview with Nayantara Banerjee of the Garment Worker Center

Nayantara Banerjee, Industry Researcher and Strategist at the Garment Worker Center and a member of the Buy Your Values UCLA Steering Committee, sat down with Labor 411’s Sahid Fawaz to talk about the Garment Worker Center’s role in the UCLA campaign.

Sahid: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Can you give us some background on the Garment Worker Center?

Nayantara: The Garment Worker Center is focused on building worker leadership to demand fashion brand accountability and advocating for policies and regulation that support workers who make the clothing. We have worker committees in local factories and provide critical resources for workers to file claims such as for wage theft.

California, and especially the Greater Los Angeles area, is a major center for domestic garment production. 40,000 people work in the garment industry in the L.A. area alone. We are currently spearheading a campaign to preserve, protect, and incentivize garment jobs in the Fashion District downtown.

A major focus, and victory, for the Garment Worker Center over the past few years was SB 62, known as the Garment Worker Protection Act. This milestone California law is the first of its kind in the country, eliminating the piece rate system of pay and establishing brand accountability for wages throughout their supply chains. And we are now fighting for a similar law at the federal level.

The Garment Worker Center is only organization in the United States providing this level of advocacy and services for garment workers.

Sahid: Garment workers have struggled with low wages, exploitation, injustices, and unsafe workplaces for as long as I can remember. What seems to be the biggest cause for the perpetuation of this problem?

Nayantara: The big fashion and fast fashion brands are not paying enough for their products. They are setting low rates for the supply chains to manage. These brands are leveraging their immense power on costs, and as a result push down wages and labor standards. A 2016 Department of Labor study found that garment factories were receiving only 73% of what they needed to cover the cost of labor.

The industry’s piece-rate system is an archaic way of doing business in which workers are paid pennies per seam or operation. It is used to pay less than minimum wage, trapping workers in a cycle of poverty while creating mega profits for brands. Astonishingly, current piece-rates are the same as they were 20 years ago.

The pressure to reduce prices in stores has a human cost. Many garment workers’ lives and futures are damaged by this system.

Nayantara Banerjee (center)

Sahid: How does the Buy Your Values at UCLA campaign align with the Garment Worker Center’s mission?

Nayantara: The Garment Worker Center is no stranger to UCLA. We have been involved for years with the school and the UCLA Labor Center. We are especially excited to work with the Buy Your Values UCLA campaign as a way to push for ethical purchasing at a major university campus. Ethical garment manufacturers need a level playing field against the big brands. The Buy Your Values UCLA campaign is working to create a market incentive for a big purchaser like UCLA to partner with ethical manufacturers.

As fast fashion produces clothing at an unsustainable rate environmentally, more and more students are becoming aware of the negative aspects of the current fashion industry. The Buy Your Values UCLA campaign brings students’ concerns like these to the forefront, pressuring the campus to be a leader in ethical purchasing.

Sahid: Are you seeing any positive or hopeful trends in the garment industry?

Nayantara: Because of the supply chain issues that emerged during the pandemic, many brands were forced to source their garments domestically. This boost to local manufacturing has shifted much-needed attention and resources to garment factories here in the U.S.

Another positive trend that we’ve seen recently is the growing interest by the business sector in the fair treatment of garment workers. For example, worker-led legislation like SB 62 is only expected to have a dozen or so industry endorsers. By the end, 157 businesses and industry organizations endorsed the critical legislation. And with the increase in consumer engagement and awareness of garment worker issues, the outlook is promising for more meaningful change for the benefit of garment workers.

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