Los Angeles—On Dec. 6, garment workers and organizers from Bangladesh and Los Angeles discussed their labor conditions at the downtown Garment Center. The 40 supporters, mostly Latina/o, included Chinese workers.
The first speaker, from Bangladesh, talked of the collapse of a factory building in April 2013 that killed over 1,100 women workers (see “Premeditated murder in Bangladesh,” July-Aug. News & Letters). He said if they had had a union, owners could not have forced workers back into the factory. Garment workers now average $25 a month. They are fighting for a minimum wage of $63 a month.
He talked of the November 2012 factory fire that killed 137 workers. Like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 young immigrant workers, doors were locked to keep workers from leaving, and many workers jumped to their death.
Some European and U.S. corporations have now signed on to a fire safety accord that gives workers the power to sue. But Wal-Mart has refused to sign it. The Bangladeshi speaker suggested a national boycott: “We need to pressure the buyers (retailers) and factory owners, not just the government. Have faith in the workers organizing themselves.”
A Latina from the L.A. Garment Center said many workers are paid pennies for piecework and end up making $130 to $140 for 40 to 60 hours of work. Even then, wages earned are frequently not paid. Many workers suffer abuse because they are undocumented. They want to be in a union, but they need a lot of support.
A Latino worker in Los Angeles said of downtown garment factories: “Sometimes we work a 14-hour day at 50 cents an hour. What Guess sells for $40 or $50, we make for five cents per piece. Often, there’s no ventilation. There are not enough toilets. Workers have to endure insults and attacks.
“Nothing happens to employers who violate labor laws. Being undocumented also discourages many from looking for other types of work. How can we make the retailer responsible for these conditions of labor?”
During the question period, a retired Chinese garment worker recalled: “When we protested, we just stopped working. You should have more workers here, get more workers together.”