From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, you’re listening to Re:Work. I’m Stefanie Ritoper.
And I’m Saba Waheed.
[Sounds of garment district chatter, music, etc]
Alt VO: It’s early Saturday morning and Stefanie and I are headed south of downtown with our friend Veronica. When we see store fronts lined with mannequins (or at least mannequin butts) wearing the latest fashions, we know we’ve reached the heart of Los Angeles’ garment district. Among the storefronts and wide boulevards, are the alleys.
It’s early Saturday morning and we’re heading down to the garment district. In this part of downtown some streets are dedicated to just selling fabric. Store after store has reams of colorful fabric of all kinds. Another street is dedicated to selling flowers. One street sells just various types of piñatas and party supplies. When we see store fronts lined with mannequins (or at least mannequin butts) wearing the latest fashions, that’s when we know we’ve reached the heart of Los Angeles’ garment district. Among the storefronts and wide boulevards, are the alleys.
The area we are walking through now is known for its wholesale and retail clothing shops. In Spanish, these are los callejones, or “the alleyways.” We turn off the main road into the most famous of the alleys, Santee Alley. With all the sounds, and people walking around, it almost feels like a big street party– if that street party was a bunch of people looking for cheap clothing.
Q: How much money do you think you’re gonna spend today, do you think?
A: No idea. $30 or more?
Q: What’s your maximum? What’s your limit?
Q: What do you think you could get for $50?
A: I think we could get shirts, sweaters, shoes.
Q: How many?
A: Like 2 of each.
Q: 2 sweaters, 2 shirts, and 2 shoes?
A: Yeah. Unless they’re on special!
As we walk through the alleys, retailers standing by shop entrances call out to customers to lure us inside.
One lady has a small stand where she sells bubble guns and mechanical toys.
[Sounds of people yelling sales]
This is just the first step into the garment district – it’s a place where there is so much unseen behind the bustling streets. In many ways, understanding the garment district is key to understanding LA, and many other places like it across the country.
In an economy where manufacturing is on the decline, it tells a lot about the manufacturing that’s left. It’s a retail center for people looking for a bargain, but it also reveals a lot about immigrant life in LA.
In today’s episode of Re:Work we take a journey through los callejones, the alleyways of Los Angeles.
VO: There’s no question that the garment district is a center for entrepreneurship. All you need to do is look around to see shops and stands opening. You can see the hunger for opportunity and business owners’ dreams of success.
One person I talk to is a young woman who owns her own makeup stand. It’s really just a few shelves at the entrance of one of the small retail clothing shops. She stands in front. Her makeup is done perfectly, she’s wearing a black makeup tool belt around her waist and she’s quick to answer questions from people walking by. She’s got all brands of makeup on the shelves– and big ideas about why she’s out here.
ST: The reason why I’m working here is I’m hustling. You know, people have to find a way to survive and California’s expensive and I have my own place. I’ve had my own place since I was 18. I just, my mom got me into this, it’s really good money. It’s a little risky and stuff but it’s good money, and yeah. What else do?
S: What does it take to set up a stand here? How do you even go about that?
ST: Money, investment, you know. Risk. Maybe you lose, maybe you win, it depends on your luck.
I also sell Mary Kay. I sell more Mary Kay than MAC., I’m in the company as well, I do that side job as well cause when I, what is it, quinceañeras, I don’t know what you call them in English, but when I do that, I do their makeup and I use the Mary Kay and I sell that and I’m almost in my Cadillac. I almost won the car.
People from all walks of life visit the alleyways. We ran into an elderly Korean woman passing out religious flyers who spoke spanish to convince people to join the church. Another business owner, a Middle Eastern cafe owner, adapts his food for his diverse customers.
M: Menu, actually, we have Mexican people and Middle-Eastern people here. The vendors are mostly Middle-Eastern, the customers are mostly Spanish. So I combine these two as a Persian/Mexican food together so I can make everybody happy here.
VO – For people who work in the garment district, the constant hustle and bustle of the district rubs off. Up until a few years ago, a fashion cycle lasted about three months as the seasons changed. Now, the fashion cycle is constant, and the demand for new styles doesn’t end. Something we see on the runway can be in stores within just a couple weeks. Small businesses, especially in the garment district, turn over styles quickly to keep regular customers. I talked to Jennifer who works at a women’s clothing store
J: Well, I mean the things is that I do other different types of work too. I also have work in a shoe store, you know, clothing store. sometimes there’s some stores that they sometimes don’t do good so they end up closing so they end up moving so you have to look for the next business.
So that’s why it’s important to always try to have our best to try to have customers in the store all the time. Or try to have our best to sell to customers but then again good customer service, you know? You make them happy and they’ll go ahead and come back and buy more.
Jennifer has worked in the garment district since she was 16, but has hopped around from shop to shop. It just goes to show that in the garment district, as quickly as businesses open, they can also close up shop. It’s also a place that’s fast moving, and a place for great creativity, great dreams, and also great risk.
VO: We move past the sales racks and crowds and enter into a building behind the alleyways, onto the second floor. The hallway is plain, neglected, with closed doors and fluorescent lights buzzing above. Behind the doors you can hear the constant hum of sewing machines and garment presses. Inside the barren industrial rooms are rows of workers cutting, sewing, ironing and assembling garments. LA used to have a thriving manufacturing industry, but now much of that work is gone. Now, the garment industry is the second largest manufacturing employer in Los Angeles, behind producing transportation equipment.
VO: Irma has been working in the garment district for over 30 years. She migrated here on her own, leaving behind her four sons in Mexico. Right now we’re walking around with her in the garment district.
I: I know these streets by heart. It’s as if I lived here because I spend more time here than anywhere else. If you work here you only go home to sleep. You leave early in the morning and you get home late at night. They say these stores are where “gabachos ” come to shop. They come here because it’s affordable. Supposedly its cheaper. Yes, there are a lot of people that come here to shop, to make a living.
VO: Though Irma started out doing sewing, as she’s gotten older she’s transitioned to doing packaging and shipping, inspecting clothing before it goes out.
I: I work in clothes inspection. I check for any defects that the clothes have, I fold them, and if it goes in the bag, I place it in the bag. The rest are in charge of sewing, finishing the pieces.
VO: We get to the corner of Pico and Maple, and she points to a huge building on the corner. It’s a majestic brick building over ten stories high, that looks like it may have seen its heyday at the turn of the century. The years and city air have darkened it, and now nearly every window in the building reveals clues that each level houses garment factories. Irma used to work at a factory inside.
I: Inside is, well, machines, sometimes a lot of trash, papers, papers that come from the job. In the evening they take out tons of trash, and sometimes when you walk in, you walk into the trash. I tell you, I would love for a television channel to come and see the conditions of these factories.
I:It is really hot sometimes, there isn’t even a fan to cool off. Yes, I tell you this is how people make a living, in bits and pieces. Well, here there are a lot of stores, tons of clothing stores here in the alleys. Below there are stores and above they are the factories, sweatshops. Basically slaves up there.
VO: Many people may think of China and Bangladesh when they think of people sewing our clothing. But Los Angeles has developed a niche market in women’s fashion for trendy, almost disposable clothing known as “fast fashion.”
Today over 45,000 workers, mostly Latino and Asian immigrants, sew garments right here in LA. These workers work long hours, often for low wages.
Usually workers don’t make an hourly rate. Instead they work on what’s called a “piece rate,” earning cents on the dollar for every piece they produce.
VO: The industry operates in this way to maximize how quickly and cheaply clothes can get out of the door. Once a style hits the catwalk, retailers clamor to get it into the stores as soon as possible.
These retailers, especially the larger ones, are at the top of the production pyramid, and they put pressure on manufacturers to produce garments quickly and cheaply. Those apparel manufacturers in turn contract out most of their production to small contractors. Those are the ones who hire garment workers.
VO: The industry is notorious for being cutthroat, where thousands of small factories compete for contracts. To win the bid, they must work with small profit margins. The pressure is immense to slash workers’ wages and keep them in substandard working conditions.
And for workers, it’s hard to speak up because these employers can easily replace them. Like the clothes they are making, they become disposable.
I: Right now we are headed to Pico and Maple.
When I came to work here, it wasn’t very welcoming. The building was really dirty, in the shops, it was a mess everywhere . Well, I was able to get the boss to fix it up at least a little bit. At least I was able to get them to change the microwave– it was so dirty that it was ready to be thrown away. That was at least one change I was able to make. I try to tell my coworkers to raise their voices, that we need to defend ourselves and that we should try to get things to change at work. For our health, more than anything, because what we’re getting asthma, back pain– our lives are at stake.
SR: Back on the main streets, we enter another big industrial building and walk up to the second floor. We walk down a cavernous and fluorescent-lit hallway, where our words echo off the walls, passing garment factories and storage facilities along the way. At the end of the hallway we find the Garment Worker Center, a worker rights organization dedicated to organizing garment workers in Los Angeles. There’s a huge mural on the wall that says “costureros unidos” – garment workers united. Waiting in the office for us is Eulalia. She’s there with her two little sons, who are running around while we talk.
She is a garment worker and a mother of four. She came to the US from Guatemala when she was 18. When she first arrived in the US, so many things took getting used to– including the food.
E: Well for me, when I arrived here it was hard. I spent a month without eating because I didn’t like the food here in the United States. I was used to eating food from Guatemala– beans, vegetables. Over there it has so much flavor. Over here you buy vegetables and they just don’t have the same flavor, it doesn’t taste the same. So I decided, “well, I’m not going to eat”.
Then she found Maruchan soup – instant ramen packets.
E: Over there in Guatemala, Maruchan soup, we can’t buy it. Sometimes you can find it, but it’s rare. And for me, Maruchan soup is really good. I told myself, “well, I’m here, I made it to a place where Maruchan soup is everywhere” and I liked it. But then I started to get tired of eating it so much.
VO: Eulalia began working as a garment worker in Downtown LA. It was a brutal change of pace. At first, she didn’t even know how to use a sewing machine. She grew up in a very rural part of Guatemala, where most people worked the land for a living. She had to learn everything– even how to thread the sewing machine. Since she worked on the piece rate, the first week she only took home $64 dollars.
But she kept at it– motivated by the thought of making a living for her daughters. She started to get faster. Then, in 2012, after working two full weeks, the company she was with refused to pay her the money she was owed. She was shocked and devastated, and decided to quit.
But after she quit, she kept thinking about the money they owed her. After some conversations with friends, she realized this wasn’t right. She decided to go back to her boss to ask him for the money.
E: And the manager told me “You know what?” he told me, “You can’t come in here because you no longer work here”.
“Why not?” I told him. “I worked and you are not paying me.”
“Leave, get out the door right now,” he told me.
I went to ask like three times by myself. And maybe because I am a woman or because I was alone or who knows–each time he told me “no, you can’t come in, leave.” Everytime he found another excuse to tell me that he didn’t want to see me in the factory, to stop wasting his time.
Eulalia talked to her brother about what had happened. She wanted to file a formal complaint with the California Labor Commissioner, but her brother thought that if they went together, her old boss would listen.
E: And my brother went with me and the manager wanted to hit my brother in the shop. He knew that the law would be on his side because my brother doesn’t work there and he could say he is causing problems. So my brother left, and as I was leaving through the door, the manager’s sister got there and she grabbed me. She scratched me, she hurt me.
And at first she told me– she’s Mexican–she called me “stupid Guatemalan.” She said, “to get to the United States you have to cross two borders.”
So, ok, I am from Guatemala, but that’s not relevant because she is undocumented and I am too. So I told her, “You know what? You don’t have papers either. That’s why you are working here with me.”
Eulalia boss called the police. When the police arrived on the scene, they turned to Eulalia. They accused her of instigating a fight, and started to write up a citation.
SR: And just like that, the police handcuffed Eulalia and showed her to the back of their police car. Even though Eulalia’s boss was the one who had broken the law by not paying her, it was Eulalia who ended up in jail.
Her youngest son was a baby at the time, at home with the babysitter.
And I asked the police, “I have my baby. What am I going to do, what’s going to happen with my son?”
The police told me, “Don’t worry, you’re only going to be in jail two or three hours.”
But it’s not true. I went in on Friday afternoon and got out on a Sunday morning. My son stayed with the babysitter without her knowing what had happened, only that I didn’t come home.
Going to jail was frightening for Eulalia, who had never had this kind of run-in before with the law.
E: When I arrived, they fingerprinted me, they took a picture of me… they didn’t ask for papers, but they locked me up in a room where many people were in jail for different things–for drugs, for fighting. And it’s, it’s dirty, it’s not clean. I stayed t here for about two, three hours there until they transferred me to another room in which I was by myself. It was closed, it was very cold… the whole time, the light is on day and night, you don’t even know what time to eat, or what time to sleep. I remember that there was a public telephone and I called my son’s father and told him, “I’m going to eat.”
I asked him, “What time is it?” It turns out they were giving me food at two in the morning. I didn’t know what time it was because I was locked up.
[MUSIC: Around, Modulogeek]
SR : She went in on Friday afternoon, without any idea of when she would get out. Each night she went to sleep without knowing how her family was or even if she would get deported. Finally, on Sunday morning the station released her.
Unfortunately, Eulalia’s story is not unique. In Los Angeles, the garment industry ranks the worst in stealing wages, underpaying, and having poor health and safety conditions.
Over half of garment workers don’t make minimum wage and 93 percent never receive overtime pay.
There are laws on the books to prevent this. For example, AB 633 says that retailers and manufacturers are responsible for the factory working conditions, even if they subcontract. But the truth is that this is very hard to enforce.
Often times, workers won’t complain because they’ve seen what happens to fellow workers when they speak up. Even in the best case scenario where workers report wage theft violations to the California Labor Commissioner, most never recover their stolen wages. Many times, garment companies quickly close down, and open under another name.
VO: For me, one of the things I found most striking about talking with Eulalia was the way she talked about her two daughters. They’re both still in Guatemala– one daughter is 11 years old and the other is 10. When she talks about them, you can hear her voice shaking.
E: What I am doing is working, sitting at the sewing machine every day to give my daughters a better future, so that they can study, so that they can buy clothes, so that they won’t feel bad like I do. One time my daughter, the oldest one, told me “Mom, when are you coming back to us?”
And I told her “I can’t go back.” I told them that because, well I can’t return because I don’t have papers.
“It’s okay,” she told me. “It’s okay… what we want is for you to fight for us, send us money.”
E: One day I will be able to see my daughters. I’d settle with going for a week to see them if that were possible, to see them and hug them. If only it were possible to come back again.
When Eulalia talks with them, she knows they have grand ideas about her life in the US. They watch TV and hear the stories, so they think Los Angeles is a place full of rich people, where people buy new outfits every day.
E: I tell them, here in the United States, I’m not living a luxurious lifestyle. I don’t have much money, and it’s not like every day I go out and buy new clothes. Because maybe they think, “wow, my mom is dressed very nice over there, or my mom has a lot of money.”
E: With thirty quetzalez I dress myself. But when I send them money for clothes, I have to send four hundred, five hundred dollars, because–they wear much nicer clothing than I do. They use traditional clothing.
“You’re in the United States, and you eat meat every day,” my mom tells me.
“But you get bored of that kind of food,” I tell them. “Over there, you can work, plant, and grow food, you have everything. Everywhere you go, a neighbor will offer you a cup of coffee. A neighbor will give you something. Here nothing,” I say because it’s true. “Here no one is going to give you anything. No one, even if you’re dying of hunger. Even if you say, ‘Oh, I have no money.’ Where could I visit someone who would share a cup of coffee or some food?
SW: We return now to Irma, the garment worker we spoke with earlier in the show. Ten years ago, Irma had lost hope. One day at work, her boss cornered her and sexually assaulted her. It was the last straw – she didn’t know what to do. She left and went to the bus stop crying. There, an organizer from the Garment Worker Center approached her.
I: They saw me crying at the bus stop and asked me, “what’s going on?”
I: I told them that I was having problems. I didn’t know what to do. I was working all that I could. The man said he could take me somewhere where they could help me. That’s how he brought me here and I met Delia. She told me, “look, usually we do not take these type of cases here, but we will help you.”
I: “We will help you stand up for yourself and help you so that you are not afraid. And then I started to gain courage and now I do stand up for myself.
The Garment Worker Center is a place where workers can go to get help. The organizers train people on health and safety laws and empower workers to demand their stolen wages.
In an industry where it’s so hard to speak up, people start to get the courage to speak up and band together to tell their stories. Irma now does more than just stand up for herself. She also encourages others to fight for their rights.
I: Well, we don’t have many other options but to take these jobs. The most we can do is try, well try to stand up for ourselves and not be humiliated or let the bosses kick you around. Its the only thing we can do because we are worth a lot–a lot, because without us they don’t have a business.
It might seem hard to imagine a different way of working in the garment district. But it’s not that far out of reach. Not too long ago, Irma had a job in the garment district— a good job. In fact, she worked there for 20 years.
I: We worked on Santee Alley. Afterwards we moved to Soto. But we always had the same boss. Yeah that boss was very good, he was one of a kind (laughing). He was very good. Then he died and I had to look for a new place to work. And to this day I haven’t been able to find a job that’s very good.
I liked that we could work calmly. There wasn’t any screaming, mistreatment. We could do what we wanted. They used to joke that the boss didn’t tell us what to do, we told him what to do.
It was a nice experience. We never needed anything when we worked with him. We always had what we needed.
[MUSIC- Fu-yu, DJ Krush & Toshinori Kondo]
It could be this way. We step back out into the street and look around. We’re a part of this place. We buy the clothes that the workers in these alleys make. It’s hard to speak up, but people are building up the courage.
Workers are learning their rights, confronting their bosses, and demanding better labor policy. There’s a way for the garment district to be a place where the industry can thrive, and where people can feel proud to be a part of it.
Thanks so much to everyone for sharing their stories.
And guess what? Now, we want to hear YOUR stories.
Call this number and answer this question. Why do you care about who makes your clothes? 1-888-821-7563
I’m serious! We really want to hear from you. Give us a call and tell us– why do you care about who makes your clothes? 1-888-821-7563
You can also listen to other people’s stories at bit.ly forward slash garment stories.
Special thanks to the Garment Worker Center and staff members Mar Martinez and Marissa Nuncio. To find out more about the Garment Worker Center, visit them at garment worker center dot org. We would also like to thank the garment workers that participated in our storytelling workshop and told their stories.
You’re listening to ReWork, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This episode of Re:Work was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit cal hum dot org.
This show was produced by Stefanie Ritoper, Saba Waheed, Pedro Joel Espinosa, Tyler Milles, Diana Valenzuela, Reyna Orellana, Jessica Garcia, Crystal Zamora, Vanessa Moreno, and Veronica Castro. Voiceover dubbing by Blanca Soto and Rebecca San Juan Aparicio. Music supervision by Francisco Garcia Nava.
Visit our website at reworkradio.org or visit us on Facebook at forward slash reworkradio. You can also tweet your reactions to this show to @rework underscore radio or send us an email at rework@IRLE.ucla.edu
‘Til next time, rethink rework.