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Garment Worker Protection Bill Defeated in California

Kali Hays

A bill to further protect the wages of workers in California who cut and sew garments has died before making it to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The Garment Worker Protection Act, introduced early this summer by Los Angeles State Sen. Maria Durazo and San Diego State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, passed the State Senate in July with a vast majority of the vote. But after being placed late last month on “suspense file” in the State Assembly Committee on Appropriations, the bill met its end.

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It was not called up for a vote Tuesday during a committee session, the last of the legislative year, and will therefore not move any further in the legislature. 

The Garment Worker Center, a worker rights group and backer of the bill, vowed on Instagram to bring the bill back next year.

“You don’t stop fighting for justice when you lose a campaign, you just fight harder,” the group said. “And we will.”

The bill, SB-1399, was hailed as a “landmark” for sustainability and worker rights. It was designed to close some loopholes in an earlier law enacted in 1999, which supporters claim has allowed the roughly 45,000 men and women, mostly immigrants, who cut and sew for garment factories in California to be paid well under minimum wage, including through the common industry practice of paying people per piece. According to the bill, this practice has brought the average hourly wage for garment workers down to roughly $5. The minimum hourly wage in California is $13 and is slated to go up to $15 next year. 

Although dozens of apparel companies had supported the bill — notably Fashion Nova, which last year came under public scrutiny for its alleged treatment of workers, but also Reformation and Shaina Mote, among others — it was met with opposition from pro-business groups. The Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, The California Chamber of Commerce and the California Fashion Association attempted to position the bill as one that would kill jobs in the state.

They all claimed the bill was overbroad, namely because it includes retailers as possibly being held liable for confirmed wage violations as “brand guarantors” that order garments, and so they should have some responsibility in whether the people who make apparel for them are treated fairly under the law. 

The CFA argued the bill could discourage brands from manufacturing in California and that current laws offer adequate recourse for wage theft claims by garment workers, despite the liability of the bill only stretching to a retailer that made and sold garments, namely for a private label, making it a manufacturer. Third-party retailers that have no direct role in manufacturing would not be considered liable under the bill. 

Nevertheless, such workers are vulnerable to wage violations and the process to remedy them is not simple. SB-1399 aimed to ease the process and would have funneled more money to the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to handle an expected increase in claims from workers.