Editor Note: The more things change, the more they stay the same. To a surprising extent, the super exploitation of early twentieth-century garment workers lives on, not just in Dhaka and Guangzhou, but also in the U.S. Garment sweatshops continue to spring up in immigrant-dense, urban peripheries, perhaps nowhere as much as in L.A. County, the setting of this “Working-Class Voices” essay. Just as in the past, these mostly immigrant female workers labor under the grind of the “piece rate” system, rather than receiving hourly wages; they make clothes for big name brands, but work for largely unregulated subcontractors; and often toil behind locked exits, under dire conditions. The decline in private-sector union density, entrenched obstacles to new organizing, and the underfunding of agencies charged with monitoring labor law compliance go a long way to explain this harrowing back-to-the-future scenario.
I come from Indonesia, where I was a garment worker. In 2003 I traveled to Malaysia, because it was hard for me to find a job in Indonesia. There was upheaval with a lot of factories burning and demonstrations in my country. At first I had a three-year contract and worked as a garment worker for the same company I had worked with in Malaysia. Once my contract ended I began work as a domestic worker. For nearly five years I worked for one employer who, in 2007, sent me to L.A. to work with her daughter. But what that family promised—earnings of a thousand dollars a month, one bedroom, and one day off per week—never came true.
In L.A. I worked the equivalent of thirty eighteen-hour days and was only paid $200 per month with no bedroom or paid days off provided. They said, “Hey, you have to pay for everything when you come here.” They took my passport and wouldn’t let me talk to anyone. At the time I didn’t speak English. The employer said, “Because you don’t speak English I’ll only give you $200.” I was very sad because it’s not what was promised. I left my son in
Indonesia to come to the U.S. I thought it was a good opportunity for me, but when I came here I felt trapped.
I decided to run away, but I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have no money. Nothing. I only had my clothes that I was wearing. I ran a mile away from her house to Bloomingdale’s to a pay phone and called Maria. Maria worked before me in my employer’s house. She’s the only person I knew. But Maria spoke Spanish, and I didn’t speak it at the time. It wasn’t clear to her when I said, “Hey help me, help me.” I didn’t understand what she said, and she didn’t understand what I said. She was afraid maybe the former employer would call the police to get her. So she called her brother Pedro, and he picked me up to go to Maria’s house. I started a new life in L.A. from Maria’s house and then in another host’s home.
I started to work with a small company. The owner was Latina and didn’t speak English. She would just give me an example of the work I had to do, and said, “Oh I am going to pay you. . . like more than other workers.” But she was lying and paid me less, because I don’t speak Spanish and couldn’t speak with the other workers. They paid weekly, and she said “Hey, you don’t talk with nobody because I give you more than the other workers.” I worked Monday to Sunday. I didn’t have the time to talk; I was just working. The first week I worked for her I was paid $125 for a week’s work. I was very happy in comparison to the other lady who paid me $200 a month. For me $125 a week is big, so I trusted her.
Every day I listened to people speak Spanish and learned the language. I listened to my host family speak Spanish so I could communicate with the other workers. Another worker asked me, “Hey Yeni, how much does she pay you?” I said, “she pays me $125.” She said “Por qué?” That worker told me everyone was paid $300 a week. I couldn’t believe it.
I left my son in Indonesia to come to the U.S….but when I came here I felt trapped.
I was doing everything: single needle, overlock (a type of stitch for edging), and cover stitch. Even in the middle of the night she’d call me. She just gave me a sample, and I’d do it. It was mainly women’s and children’s clothing. I worked Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3p.m. When the material came from the cutting company they gave me a basic dress first, and it was one single needle. Single needle means it was stitched by a sewing machine. Overlock sews over the edge of the fabric, and it per- forms the task of a serger (trims and encloses the seam). You make a shirt or dress come together with overlock, then coverstitch is the finishing, and the labeling is done with single needle. The next step is the garment goes to trimming, then ironing, then packing. My job as a sewer encompasses each step in sewing: single needle, overlock, and coverstitch. Garment workers are paid by piece rate. For example, if I make toy soldiers and sew the front only it is four cents. If I sew the front and the back it is eight cents each. Joining the skirt front to the skirt back is six cents to twelve cents. They gave me a low rate because I didn’t speak Spanish with the other workers. I was paid four cents, and the boss paid the other workers approximately six cents per piece.
I worked Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
I continued working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at one machine with only thirty minutes for a break at lunchtime. I didn’t know my rights and was going faster because we worked piece rate. Workers could get up and use the restroom. Sometimes when I wanted to make more money I didn’t even have a drink, and I didn’t get up from my machine because I wanted to sew a lot of pieces. I now have back pain daily; I know it’s from not enough water and sitting down a lot.
For the workers who know the machine and how to operate it well, it’s not hard to get this job. It’s everywhere, and it’s easy. For workers who don’t know how to work the machine, like trimming or finishing, then it’s really hard. A lot of these companies don’t even ask your name. You can just come through when you see a help wanted sign. “Buenos días . . .” just say it like that. The company will give you work, “Hey what can you do? Overlock? Single needle?” They pay piece rate and don’t even ask if you have a name or legal document; they don’t ask anything. At the end of the work week they’ll say, “Hey, I don’t like the job or you’re not doing good. I will only pay for this week. Go work for someone else.” They do not have any training for workers. They want experience, but they pay low wages. They don’t want the people working slowly or doing an ugly job. They want workers to be perfect, fast, and experienced. They prefer people with at least five years of experience, but they only pay piece rate, and no one regulates that rate. They pay whatever they want, and different rates to different workers. We don’t have anyone to say, “Hey, don’t do that.”
The building I worked in was not clean, because the subcontractor was an illegal company; they didn’t have any license for doing the job. They were hiding. When someone would say, “Hey, the labor commission is doing a check on the clothes in the company,” we would hide inside the company for three to five hours without pay.
They pay piece rate and don’t even ask if you have a name or legal document.
Manufacturers tend to follow regulations, but the subcontractors don’t. They can open anywhere. They can operate in the garage, anywhere. The label goes to a middleman, and the subcontractor gets the contract from the middleman. Sometimes the sub- contractor has to give money to the cutting com- pany to get the job. It is a bad system. The cheap, fast subcontractor gets the job from the middleman to do the work for the label. We (the workers) don’t work with the label, only the subcontractor.
The garment industry is mainly made up of women workers. When I started work for the first company in L.A. I had a baby. Daycare is expensive. It was $20 per day, and for me that was too much. I wasn’t sure if I would get paid $20 or $25 a day. So I just took my son; put him in the big box; put the toys, food, and everything around me; and when I was working I could see him. I asked the owner “Hey, can I bring my son because I don’t have no one to take him?” And he said yes, but he told me to move my machine to hide my son if a customer or someone came in. We had no paid sick days or benefits. I have a machine at home, so if my son got sick or I couldn’t go work they would send me to work at home. Small work like tacking [stitching that holds a seam in place until it can be permanently sewn], labeling, or other small jobs.
These work conditions are common. After two years I left the company because my hus- band said, “Hey Yeni, are you stupid or what? Let the company find another person. The lady is using you. They don’t pay you nights.” My husband was mad. I found another job at another company that didn’t pay me for three weeks. Then I left and worked for almost a year at another company. Then, when they didn’t pay me, I just left. They said just take a machine, because we can’t pay you. I said no, I want cash, and negotiated with them. So I went to work making clothes for the label Onzie; they make yoga clothing. They paid weekly; I worked Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon. They paid me $370 per week. They are a good brand. I worked with them for almost two years.
Despite Onzie being a good company, they didn’t pay me a real check. I couldn’t change it in the bank. The workers could only change it in one place, which is the money changer the factory had decided to use. My boss worked with the money changer so I had to change the money with them or it would bounce. The money changer was in a truck. All the workers were undocumented and had no paperwork. The truck came to the company and cashed the check from the company.
Daycare . . . was $20 per day, and for me that was too much. I wasn’t sure if I would get paid $20 or $25 a day. So I just took my son, put him in the big box . . . when I was working I could see him.
I learned about the Garment Worker Center when I was working for Onzie downtown. They were handing out flyers. They said, we can help you if you have any problem with your employer: wage theft, or you speak English but they speak Spanish. I asked what I could do if my employer didn’t pay me for three weeks. The Garment Worker Center staff said come to the office, and they gave me an address. We began filing my case with the Labor Commission, and I became a member of the Garment Worker Center in 2015.
The most important campaign we’re working on right now at the Garment Worker Center is that we are still at the level of slavery. We don’t even have minimum wage. We are still paid by piece rate and nobody controls that rate. You know the minimum wage rises occasion- ally, but the piece rate never rises up. Nobody controls it; for almost twenty or thirty years the piece rate has not changed. So our main focus is to eliminate the piece rate and enforce the mini- mum wage. And we want regulations. We need support from a lot of people. We want the label to be directly responsible for the garment workers. I believe this industry has some good companies that protect the worker or pay mini- mum wage. But there are a lot of labels like Ross who are contracting for cheaper and faster subcontractors. We want to change the system to be more like Nike is now, for example. Under Nike there is responsibility for the workers who make the clothing for Nike; they’re their work- ers. The cutting, sewing, and finishing department is under Nike’s responsibility. There is a lot of price cutting when a label goes through a subcontractor rather than paying minimum wage to workers. We want the label to be directly responsible to the worker.
Yeni Dewi has worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles and in Indonesia for over a decade. She is a leader at Garment Worker Center, fighting for dignity and fair wages for all garment workers, and a member at CAST LA, advocating against human trafficking.
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in labor studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925 and women organizing in the workplace.