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‘I don’t really have a choice’: L.A. garment workers are risking their lives to sew masks

As the pandemic worsens, immigrants in L.A.’s garment district have little protection from the coronavirus—even as they make masks for others.

‘I don’t really have a choice’: L.A. garment workers are risking their lives to sew masks
[Source Images: keko-ka/iStock, Lyubov Ivanova/iStock]

While Maria was sewing hundreds of face masks each day at a Los Angeles factory, she never received one herself. Her employer didn’t offer, she says, despite the coronavirus pandemic burning through California. Though she brought her own face mask, many of her coworkers went barefaced. One of them has already been infected with COVID-19. Maria is worried she might be next.

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Amid a surge in demand for masks, governments and businesses have turned to L.A.’s Garment District, the country’s largest apparel manufacturing hub, to help curb the plague. But according to advocacy groups and researchers, these same factories—many of them cramped and poorly ventilated—have also become dangerous vectors for transmission. “Factories are producing personal protective equipment while not offering it to their workers,” says Alex Sanchez, a field organizer from advocacy group the Garment Worker Center. “Workers don’t have sick leave so if they get sick, they come to work sick.”

The exact number of garment workers who have gotten sick or died from COVID-19 is unknown, but the Garment Worker Center says it hears daily from workers about outbreaks at factories. It has documented cases of workers getting infected at facilities that manufacture for fast-fashion mainstays Fashion Nova, Francesca’s, Lulu’s, and Papaya, among others. (We reached out to all of these brands to see if they were aware of these issues and ask what they were doing to protect workers, but none responded by the time of publication.)

The outbreaks of COVID-19 in the L.A. Garment District should not come as a surprise, according to Janna Shadduck-Hernandez, a labor scholar and project director at UCLA’s Labor Center. For decades, scholars and journalists have documented unsafe working conditions in factories in the city. While the United States theoretically has laws to protect workers, there are massive holes in the regulatory regime, with few mechanisms for enforcement.

In one recent high-profile example, the L.A. County Department of Public Health twice shut down the South L.A. factory of Los Angeles Apparel, the startup launched by former American Apparel founder Dov Charney—first because it had violated the county’s health orders, and later because 300 workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and four died. The factory was cleared to reopen this week. But experts say that many outbreaks at other garment factories and subsequent deaths are going undetected.

“We’ve heard through our networks that there are COVID deaths in indigenous communities and (undocumented) communities,” says Shadduck-Hernandez. “These workers are fearful of coming forward about the outbreaks because they need to work, and there is no other work. They live below the poverty line and don’t get sick leave, so some are forced to work even when they have COVID symptoms.”

“I don’t really have a choice but to take this risk”

That’s certainly the case for Maria, 46, who came to Los Angeles in 1995 from Guatemala and has been working in garment factories for the past 25 years. She and her husband are both undocumented; we changed her name to protect her identity because she’s worried her status will leave her vulnerable to ICE raids. (We spoke on the phone through a translator.) On March 19, her factory shut down as a result of California’s stay-at-home order. But under Los Angeles County’s “Safer at Home” order, factories that were manufacturing personal protective equipment could remain open. In late March, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti launched a program called LA Protects, which invited garment factories to manufacture PPE for companies and organizations in the city. More than 400 signed up, which meant they were classified as essential businesses.

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Maria initially took one job that paid $0.03 a mask, but it was impossible for her to sew the 166 masks an hour to make her usual wage of $5 an hour. While that’s $7 less than the state’s minimum wage, it’s standard for garment factories to pay workers per item, rather than by the hour, which allows them to skirt minimum wage laws. Then she found a weeklong project that paid $450 for nine hours of work a day. She had to sew hundreds of masks a day, but there was no quota. She wasn’t told who she was making the masks for or where they were headed, which she says is common in these kinds of factories.

Maria says the facility, which is located close to the Staples Center, didn’t have many windows to allow air to circulate and she saw cockroaches and rats scuttling around the factory, sometimes even on sewing machines. She had a couple of bathroom breaks during the day to wash her hands, but the toilets and sinks were filthy. “My family has struggled so much through this pandemic, we’ve had to borrow money,” says Maria, who has three kids. Her husband’s hours have also been cut. “Even though I know it is not safe, I don’t really have a choice but to take this risk.”

Maria says her legal status makes it hard for her to speak up about the unsafe conditions at the factory. If she asks her boss for better ventilation, she believes she will be fired or deported. If she contacts the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government agency that regulates workplace safety, she’s worried ICE might get involved. (California law says OSHA inspectors can’t ask about a worker’s immigration status, but many undocumented workers like Maria don’t want to take the risk.)

Why some outbreaks aren’t detected

Andrea Garcia, a spokesperson for Mayor Garcetti, said inspecting factories and enforcing safety protocols doesn’t fall under the city’s jurisdiction, but rather under the county and state, through agencies like OSHA and the L.A. Department of Public Health. A spokesperson for California OSHA, meanwhile, said that the agency isn’t notified of every confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles Garment District because the law only requires companies to report cases that result in serious injury or death. Frank Polizzi, a public information officer for the agency, wrote in an email that when the agency is notified of a serious case or receives a complaint, it investigates, as it did when workers at Los Angeles Apparel notified the agency of possible violations at their factory. We reached out to the L.A. County Department of Public Health, but they did not respond by press time.

Another worker I spoke with, Antonio, 64, believes he got infected with coronavirus at the garment factory where he worked making T-shirts. He’s diabetic and was worried about getting sick, so he chose to work in a smaller factory, hoping it would be safer, and wore a mask at all times. Like Maria, Antonio says his factory was unclean, without good air circulation, but he hoped that because there were fewer than a dozen workers, he’d be less likely to get sick. He was wrong. He got a severe case of COVID-19, landing him in the hospital for two weeks. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t breathe, I was in pain all the time,” says Antonio, who is originally from Bolivia and has been in the United States for 14 years. (We changed his name because he is worried about possible retaliation from the owner.)

Fifteen days after being released from the hospital, he says he still can’t walk properly because he tires from restricted lung capacity. He’s heard from his former coworkers that two other people at the factory tested positive for COVID-19, and the factory owner shut down the facility in the middle of the night without informing anyone.

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Safety issues at U.S. factories aren’t limited to the L.A. Garment District. Last week, three meatpacking workers sued OSHA for failing to enforce safety regulations at the Maid-Rite plant in Pennsylvania; and meatpacking plants across the country have been hotspots for COVID-19, as the standard working conditions make social distancing nearly impossible.

In order to participate in LA Protects, the city listed a set of guidelines, including placing work stations 6 feet apart and requiring workers to wear facial coverings. The mayor’s office created a “Business Ambassador” program, in which city employees perform unannounced visits to factories in the program. Garcia, Garcetti’s spokesperson, also noted that there was a complaint hotline and that the city had dispatched free mobile COVID-19 testing sites close to factories.

Field organizers from the Garment Workers Center have been dropping in unannounced on factories, and they have found unsafe conditions in many factories. According to Sanchez, the majority of factories have few windows for air flow, and many don’t have air conditioners, so they can get dangerously hot in the summer. Some owners try to cram as many work stations into their facility as possible, so workers may be just 2 or 3 feet apart.

Garment factories made workers sick before COVID-19

The L.A. garment industry employs about 45,000 workers, half of whom are undocumented, at more than 3,000 factories. In a 2016 study from the Labor Center at UCLA, 60% of garment workers surveyed said poor ventilation made it difficult to work and breathe; 47% said bathrooms were unmaintained; 20% had seen mold in the factory, 42% said they had seen vermin. The report found that garment workers have higher rates of asthma, bronchitis, and musculoskeletal disorders than the general population.

“Yes, of course these factories are a tinderbox for coronavirus,” says Shadduck-Hernandez, one of the authors of that study. “The story is not just that garment workers are getting sick today, but that they have historically been getting sick.”

Carmen, 50, an undocumented worker from Mexico who has worked continuously in the garment district since 1992, has been employed by at least a dozen factories. “I worked at one factory where the conditions were average and stayed there 10 years,” she says in Spanish through translator. “But for the most part, the conditions are bad. The factories are infested with rats and cockroaches, and the bathrooms were dirty.” Despite that, she’s still hoping she’ll get called back to work at her factory, even though she’s at a higher risk: She has high blood pressure and her husband is diabetic.

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According to Polizzi, the California OSHA officer, employers are required to prevent the spread of the virus by modifying work to allow for “more distancing” (although he did not specify 6 feet, which is the CDC’s recommendation), providing supplies for increased disinfection of surfaces, allowing time for proper hand washing, and providing employees with face coverings, or allowing them to use their own. “Employers are required to protect their workers from workplace safety and health hazards, and at this time COVID-19 must be treated like a workplace hazard,” he says. OSHA can conduct unannounced inspections, but employers have the right to require officers to obtain a warrant before entering the worksite, which can delay the process.

Historically, when factories failed safety inspections, it was common for them to reopen under a different name and owner, without improving the conditions. “Factories change names the way you and I change clothes,” Sanchez explains. Shadduck-Hernandez agrees. “This is an underground economy, a kind of mafia,” she says, pointing out these are common tactics in many under-regulated industries. “OSHA and other agencies go to the factory owner, only to find he isn’t the owner anymore.”

The factories where Maria and Antonio worked were part of this opaque and convoluted system; the Garment Worker Center verified their existence but said both facilities are unlicensed and the owners’ information is unlisted. As such, we were unable to contact these factories to ask about the conditions Maria and Anthony described. Additionally, Antonio said his facility was never making masks, which means that it would have been operating illegally according to L.A.’s shutdown order.

Workers, for their part, don’t feel like they can report these violations. Maria, for instance, worries she might be deported or face retaliation from her employer. But mostly, she desperately needs the work. Before the crisis, garment workers earned an average of $5.15 an hour, which means that most of them live in poverty, without any savings to fall back on when factories closed because of the crisis. (A bill recently introduced in the California State Senate seeks to outlaw the current “piece rate” system, but it has yet to pass.)

“Poverty is at the bottom of this,” says Shadduck-Hernandez. “When you don’t have enough food to feed your kids, cannot pay rent, or do not have the funds to send back to your mom who’s sick in Guatemala, you will do anything to earn that money. Even with food banks and churches, some of these families are living at 500% below the poverty line.”

That means workers in the United States often end up in sweatshop conditions, and factory owners take advantage of their undocumented status to resist improvements. Factories that should be tightly regulated under U.S. law are often unlicensed and able to operate under the radar, which makes it more difficult for authorities to identify or investigate outbreaks. Says Sanchez: “There is no oversight.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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