Before he was hospitalized with COVID-19, before his roommates kicked him out of their shared apartment because of his illness, before he found himself unhoused for the first time in his life, Francisco Tzul noticed people at his downtown Los Angeles garment factory start to cough. In a few days, they would disappear.
Tzul, 56, is an undocumented worker in the city’s massive garment industry, one that relies on men and women like him to produce shirts, blouses and skirts for major fashion brands so they can be sold at a premium for being made in America.
He worked at a legitimate garment factory, Los Angeles Apparel, sewing face masks. The job paid him L.A.’s minimum wage of $15 per hour and overtime, part of the city’s essential workforce.
The payment was close to what legislators asked for in a bill that failed in the most recent legislative session: Paying workers by the hour, not by the piece. He didn’t have health benefits, but it was far better than what he was making in the underground factories.
Then, he got sick.
“I thought it was a normal cold,” said Tzul, who is bilingual. “Then I started to feel really, really, really bad. My respiratory system was completely blocked and I wasn’t able to breathe at all. A couple times I collapsed.”
He was taken by paramedics to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with COVID-19. After 10 days he was released only to be told by his roommates to find another place to live, immediately.
The Los Angeles-based Garment Worker Center, a worker rights organization, helped find him a hotel on Skid Row for two weeks. Toward the end of his hotel stay in late June, he saw on the news that Los Angeles Apparel was the site of an outbreak that affected at least 375 of his co-workers. Four of them died.
Suddenly, the slow drip of disappearing workers at the factory made sense.
The county shut down the factory (it reopened and shut down a second time before its most recent reopening in late July). Los Angeles Apparel did not return calls for comment.
All that was left to him was the underground garment factories. Watching the news, he knew then he would soon return — sewing by the piece was the only way he knew how to survive.
Los Angeles is a center of garment work because of its port, the busiest in the country, which allows the bulk import of half-sewn garments from factories on the Pacific Rim to be finished in Los Angeles.
The main mechanism to keep retail prices low on a long supply chain, said UCLA Labor Center project director Janna Shadduck-Hernández, is paying garment workers a per-piece rate of less than 12 cents.
While some factories have shifted to hourly wages, many continue to pay workers by the piece. Requests for better pay are typically fruitless, Shadduck-Hernández said, because the factories make significant efforts to avoid detection by authorities, mainly by threatening their workforce with deportation and moving often.
“They will change their (business) names, they’ll open and close quickly” to avoid detection, Shadduck-Hernández said. “Companies that have labor violations or fines, they move and put it in the names of their mother or their wife. Many don’t get business licenses.”
SB 1399, also known as the Garment Worker Protection Act, would have changed that.
The bill’s most controversial aspect was its brand guarantor provision, which would have extended the liability for wage theft from the factories themselves to the brands and retailers that sell the clothes, as well as any subcontractors in between.
SB 1399 was brought forward by Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat. Aside from ensuring a minimum wage to garment workers — unless those workers collectively bargained a per-piece rate — it would have also created a fund administered by the state Department of Labor to pay out wage claims.
The bill cleared the Senate, but dragged through the Assembly. By the final night of the pandemic-shortened legislative session, despite supporters’ hopes it would see the floor, the bill never did.
One reason: Strong opposition from the powerful California Chamber of Commerce, which argued that the bill’s proposed changes would do more harm to Los Angeles’ garment industry than good.
Chief among its objections was the potential for increased costs to businesses, along with increased regulatory burdens and the stepped-up enforcement mechanisms available to the Department of Labor, which the chamber argues would make “significant changes to evidentiary standards for liability.” The chamber also objected to the ability of unionized workforces to revert to a per-piece rate.
“Like all employers, businesses in this industry have suffered from the financial crisis of this pandemic,” chamber lobbyist Jennifer Barrera wrote in June. “SB 1399 only worsens that suffering.”
The chamber, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CalMatters, said during debate around the bill that the brand guarantor provision would make not only major retailers liable for wage theft, but also tiny intermediaries like dry cleaners and personal shoppers.
But mainly, Barrera wrote, there’s no need for SB 1399. California workers are already covered by the state’s minimum wage law. Additionally, “piece-rate compensation can be beneficial for employees, as it provides an opportunity to earn a higher income.”
Durazo has already pledged to reintroduce the bill next session. In a Zoom call with supporters a day after the bill failed to reach the floor of the Assembly, she tried to cheer up a disappointed crowd, but also warned that the bill’s passage to law would face an uphill climb again next year.
“The organizations that oppose this bill are not gonna back off,” Durazo said.
When the pandemic forced restaurants and bars to close in mid-March, the undocumented workforce that forms the backbone of Los Angeles’ service industry returned to the essential industries that were still open to them, mostly agriculture, housework and garments.
Garment workers who spoke to CalMatters said the conditions inside were already difficult before the pandemic: Rats make nests in the piles of fabric, cockroaches skitter around constantly and there is little, if any, ventilation.
But the pandemic has brought those concerns into starker relief.
Tzul said he’s never seen the factories conduct temperature checks, distribute hand sanitizer or provide enough space to allow workers to socially distance either at their work stations or during their lunch hours.
Garment workers are paid about 5 cents to 12 cents per piece of clothing. They work five-and-a-half days a week, 10 hours per day. Their weekly take-home pay is about $300, or $5.50 per hour, paid in cash.
In the meantime, the fashion industry stumbles through a pandemic-driven recession while the underground Los Angeles garment industry serves up products cheap enough to undercut legitimate operators.
After crossing into the U.S. from Mexico in 1992 and a decade spent in that underground economy, Tzul found legitimate work.
He found a job in 2002 as a worker in a West Hollywood flooring showroom, making good money for a company that designed custom flooring for houses. He held that job until 2009, when the Great Recession sent retail stores into bankruptcy, including his.
He was forced back into the Los Angeles garment underground. Ten years passed. In October 2019, he drove to the Glendale Galleria mall and spotted a woman in the food court. Her blouse looked familiar, a black overlock-stitch garment from the fast-fashion brand Fashion Nova.
“I asked her, excuse me and I’m sorry to bother you, but how much did you pay for that?” Tzul said. “She said, about $100-plus. She said, are you looking for one for your wife or your girlfriend?”
“To make that dress,” he told her, “I was paid $1.”
* This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.