The Times tells the story of Rosario Ruiz, a garment worker from El Salvador with a green card who works off the books for a small factory on the edge of downtown Los Angeles. Early this month her boss called to say he had new work for her. She walked the mile to her job, avoiding bus travel for fear the virus would catch her. At the factory she was told that instead of the 5 cents she had been getting for each label she sewed on a T-shirt, she would get 20 cents for each pair of elastic straps she sewed on a mask.
Depending on her hours, Ruiz was used to making $250 to $400 per week. If she could finish 300 masks per day, she would make $350 for a 50-hour work week. In Los Angeles, the minimum wage is $13.50 an hour. Ruiz would make barely over half that—$7 an hour—all of it in cash and off the books. She is thus ineligible for unemployment benefits. A federal study in 2016 found violations of wage laws in southern California garment factories in 85% of 77 random investigations. It led to $1.3 million being recovered. In 2018, the figure was $1.5 million. Last year it was $2 million.
California’s law on piecework and the minimum wage is the toughest in the nation. Not only must employers pay piecework employees wages equal to the minimum wage, they must pay overtime, and cover the time workers have to sit and wait for a new task. A good law, but one that is difficult to enforce in part because small factories caught in violations can dissolve themselves overnight and the next morning open a new factory under a new name at a new address. Dean points out that regulators are thus engaged in a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
Two decades ago California lawmakers passed the Garment Restitution Fund. This is paid for with fees attached to new business registrations. But it is far from enough, with unpaid restitution cases often dragging on for years. This finally spurred the legislature in 2019 to put $16 million into the fund to clear the backlog.
In a pandemic, however, getting paid what is owed is just one problem for these cheated, low-wage, mostly unprotected workers. While factories say they are practicing social distancing, one interviewed worker said that wasn’t the case where he sews masks. Workers were, he said, spaced about three feet apart and, despite the recommendation from Centers for Disease Control that workplaces during the pandemic should be more ventilated than usual with windows open or air conditioning properly adjusted, the factory was zipped up tight.
Said Nuncio: “Most of society is being asked to stay home, because that’s the safer thing to do. If we’re elevating garment workers to essential workers, brands need to elevate their labor standards and offer some form of hazard pay.”
In or out of a pandemic, manufacturers’ view of these workers is no different than that of the politicians determined to send nonessential workers back to work: They’re expendable.
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