The prevailing image of fashion sweatshops typically places them in countries such as Bangladesh—a result of decades of outsourcing of apparel manufacturing to Asian nations where wages are among the lowest in the world.
But even as the US apparel manufacturing industry has shrunk, sweatshops have remained very much a part of it, as highlighted by a New York Times investigation into California-based retailer Fashion Nova, a company known for its overtly sexy Instagram presence and lightning-quick copies of celebrity looks. Speed is key to its success. Customers know when a star such as Kim Kardashian or Cardi B appears in public, they can often find a cheap facsimile of the look on Fashion Nova’s site shortly after. To be as fast as possible, the company manufactures most of its clothing in the US, much of it in Los Angeles.
According to the Times, investigations by the US Department of Labor from 2016 to 2019 found factories in Los Angeles contracted to make Fashion Nova’s clothes paid sewers as little as $2.77 an hour, well below California’s current minimum wage of $12 an hour for employers with 26 or more employees. Collectively the factories owed workers $3.8 million in back wages. One worker who stitched Fashion Nova clothing at a factory called Coco Love told the Times she earned just a few cents for each part of a garment she sewed, such as four cents to sew on a shirt sleeve. To earn her average of about $270 a week, she worked seven days a week in dirty conditions. “There were cockroaches. There were rats,” she told the Times. “The conditions weren’t good.”
In an emailed statement to Quartz, Fashion Nova said it follows all California labor laws and vendors sign agreements to pay their employees and subcontractors in accordance with those laws. “We fully support the Department of Labor’s efforts to ensure that these independent manufacturers comply with all laws and requirements,” it said. “Any suggestion that Fashion Nova is responsible for underpaying anyone working on our brand is categorically false.”
Los Angeles has numerous apparel factories known for employing workers at low wages. The labor department has continued to find violations in the city over the years, at factories producing for well-known, low-cost retailers including Forever 21, TJ Maxx, and Ross Dress for Less. Many workers are undocumented, making them unlikely to go to the authorities if they’re cheated on pay.
Oftentimes, retailers don’t contract with factories directly, but rather place orders with middlemen that design the clothes and hire the factories to make them. The system allows the retailer to focus on tasks such as marketing and distribution while shielding it from federal law, which generally targets the companies that directly employ workers and exempts their contractors if they can credibly claim they didn’t know of the conditions. The Times notes that the labor department has “collected millions in back wages and penalties from Los Angeles garment businesses in recent years, but has not fined a retailer.”
The system also lets retailers maintain they’re not responsible for low wages, a claim multinational corporations make about wages in countries such as Bangladesh. But union leaders and other experts argue retailers have the most power, including in the US. “The retailers are setting the prices,” Ruben Rosalez, an administrator with the labor department told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “They’re saying, ‘Make this shirt for this amount,’ but it’s the workers at the end of the chain that are getting screwed.”
Sign up for the Quartz Daily Brief, our free daily newsletter with the world’s most important and interesting news.
More stories from Quartz: