Student Director of Religious and Spiritual Life
Hometown: Kampala, UgandaRead the full interview
As we pulled into the parking lot outside the government building, Alejandra turned the car off but did not open her door. She took a breath of the oven-like air and turned to face Maria.
"You do know that judges often won't even bother with cases dealing with less than $2000.00. We will probably walk in and be told to walk right back out again."
Maria's eyes met Alejandra's across the stick shift.
"I don't care about the money anymore. I just want to see that woman admit that she was wrong."
Maria Toriz had worked for a Los Angeles garment contractor for several weeks in 2002. After her paycheck had been postponed for three Fridays in a row, she complained to the manager. She received a factory check, but the next day the owner called her in and asked her to return the check so that she could give Maria a personal check instead. This is not common, but not unheard-of. Maria trustingly returned the un-cashed check and resumed work. The next morning she was fired. She never received that check.
The factory Maria worked in was a typical Los Angeles sweatshop. A sweatshop is classified as any workplace that subjects its workers to exploitation such as underpayment or a lack of benefits, verbal or physical abuse, and poor working conditions. 67% of L.A. garment factories do not comply with minimum wage and overtime laws, and 98% do not comply with health and safety codes. Most of these factories are not registered, and by changing locations as frequently as every few weeks, it is nearly impossible to track them down. This underground economy is the one of the largest sources of income for California, which has the fifth largest economy in the world. As a $30 billion industry, the California garment industry is second only to the California agricultural industry. It is centered in downtown Los Angeles, and is the silent, driving force behind L.A.'s economy. The garment sector officially employs over 160,000 workers. Because the entire industry is largely underground, the real number of garment workers in California is much higher than that. The majority of these workers are undocumented immigrants from South and Central America.
I was surprised to learn that Los Angeles sweatshops are not the cavernous factories filled with the blood, chains, and chaos of my imagination. The hundreds of women flying out of seventh-story windows to escape the flames of the infamous New York Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1912 have been confined to the history books. When I caught glimpses of a few sweatshops before the doors slammed shut in my face, I was first struck by how small they were; in fact, the average size of an L.A. sweatshop is only a dozen workers. They were dark, dusty and stifling, but in the end appeared to be pretty normal factories. Certainly not places I would want to work, but I did not feel like I was gazing through the Gates of Hell. However, when I started to get to know the workers and learn about the working conditions that are not obvious at a moment's glance, I started to realize the truly oppressive aspects of this industry. Workers usually work 10-14 hours a day, at least six days a week. They almost never receive overtime pay, and the average wage is about $3.00/hour. The California minimum wage is $6.75/hour. A Los Angeles living wage, a site-specific calculation that takes into account local prices, land values, and taxes, is considered to be $9.00/hour! Most factories are barred and locked shut to keep out inspectors. As a result, in the Los Angeles summer where the streets of downtown are frequently above 105B, the heat in a closed room five stories up filled with heavy machinery and sweaty bodies is overwhelming. The factories are not only stifling, they are usually filthy, infested with rodents and insects, and with inadequate bathroom facilities or fresh water. Workers are often not allowed to leave the room, even to go to the bathroom, at any time other than during their single fifteen-minute break or half-hour lunch break. Often the workers are yelled at and physically abused if they are not working fast enough. With a workforce mostly made up of young women, it is not uncommon for workers to be forced to sleep with the factory owner just to keep their jobs. The threat of deportation is held over their heads at every moment, making complaints extremely rare.
The Garment Worker Center was established in January 2001 in response to the most famous Los Angeles sweatshop case yet, the El Monte sweatshops. This case involved nearly a hundred Thai women who had been recruited in Thailand by an American factory owner, and told it was the opportunity of the lifetime to hand over their entire families life savings in order to purchase a ticket to America with him. They were promised full-time jobs, evening school, and independent housing. In fact, they were forced to sleep on the floor of a massive concrete hall, directly above the factory they were forced to work in 14 hours a day, seven days a week, in order to pay off their debt. Trapped in the compound by barbed wire, locks, and the language barrier, it was two years before a woman finally escaped. Once the sweatshop was exposed to the authorities, the women were immediately placed in a deportation facility. The human rights community united to help these women, and ultimately successful lawsuits were brought on their behalf. The Garment Worker Center was formed shortly afterwards as a project of five different non-profit organizations to address the issues of Los Angeles sweatshops.
The Garment Worker Center is in the heart of the Los Angeles Fashion District, which is where most of the factories are located. It helps the garment worker community in several ways. It provides free aid to workers wishing to file wage claims or other complaints with the Department of Labor. It helps workers who need legal advice find free lawyers. For the two largest group lawsuits filed by some GWC workers against retail companies that knowingly used sweatshops, the GWC has organized boycotts against the companies. The GWC organizes weekly demonstrations at these stores in order to encourage settlement. The GWC also holds a selection of educational workshops for the workers on topics such as health issues, workplace rights, filing taxes, the upcoming California recall election, and women s rights. The GWC also supports local and state immigrant rights and labor rights organizations. I worked at the GWC for ten weeks this summer with three other interns and five staff members. I did the typical office work of an intern, such as filing, faxing, and re-organizing. I also did a lot of online research ranging from the history and assets of specific retail companies to the registration status of certain local factories. Those long, quiet days made me question my purpose there, but I came to realize that every job has its unglamorous sides. And there were more than enough exciting aspects of the internship to make it 100% worth my time, although that was often because I learned so much from the people I met rather than actually making a significant difference in the cycle of labor exploitation.
I attended weekly protests with hundreds of different workers, handed out flyers on street comers every Friday, and made posters, buttons and t-shirts. I compiled a list of the addresses of all the malls in the country, and sent them information about why they should think twice about allowing stores with particularly terrible records to open in their mall. I attended different non-profit coalition meetings, and I researched legislation that has affected and will affect the California immigrant community. I went on fun outings to the zoo or the beach with over forty workers and their children.
One afternoon, I went on a fruitless search through four huge factory buildings seeking to collect a check from an owner with whom we had earlier settled a worker's claim. That was the only occasion where I even caught glimpses of the true sweatshops. However, I did take an extended tour throughout the American Apparel factory, the only large sweatshop-free factory in the city. The GWC tries to help all of the workers we deal with get jobs at American Apparel, for it offers starting wages of $9/hour, English classes, childcare, and healthy working conditions. I attended workshops at the GWC, and I ran an anti-sweatshop booth at the large Lollapalooza concert festival. One of the most moving experiences I had, however, was attending Maria Toriz's hearing with her. Maria's case - 3 weeks worth of unpaid wages - was by no means one of the more serious cases that I dealt with over the summer, but it was a typical case that illustrates the purpose of the Garment Worker Center. With the help of the case manager at the GWC, Maria Toriz filed a wage claim for those three weeks worth of wages. After months of legal maneuvering, the punitive fines on the factory owner for running from the court and delaying the court date had multiplied, so that Maria was asking for about $1000.00 total. Because the Department of Labor is so overloaded with these cases, often they do not deal with wage claims that involve less than a month of work. Alejandra Domenzain, the vibrant young case manager, warned Maria of the low likelihood of success. On the morning when the three of us walked into the hearing room, Maria had taken the entire day off of work simply in the hopes of seeing her rights acknowledged by the law. As we sat in the car before the hearing, I couldn't stop thinking she was one of the strongest people I have ever seen. I don't know what I would have done in Maria's situation but I secretly doubt I would be so dedicated to the social justice movement if I had her immediate concerns: five mouths to feed on a $3/hour salary. It takes a truly strong person to survive in that world and fight for justice in the spare time.
For Maria, this lawsuit meant many evening conferences with Alejandra. Evenings are the few precious hours that she has to spend time with her family or on her own. And the loss of the day's wages when she attended her hearing means that she might not be able to pay her rent this month. Maria is a middle-aged woman who crossed the border from Mexico about 20 years ago with her four children. Though all of them are now grown adults, she is still supporting them all, as well as her abusive husband. At a stage of life when a hard-working woman should be able to slow down and be cared for by her relatives, Maria's meager paycheck is almost entirely divided between the five people she is supporting. She never objects to the ceaseless demands other family in her eyes, giving all that she earns is an expression of her love. It was simultaneously wonderful and heart-breaking to see a woman so chained down by the traditional roles of domesticity and subservience become a true leader among other garment workers: traveling through the state making speeches, organizing and facilitating meetings, and leading the crowd with her bullhorn and chants at large protests.
When we arrived at the Department of Labor to try Maria's case, the waiting room was crowded with workers of all ages, talking in hushed tones in Spanish and anxiously waiting their turns. While Alejandra reviewed the paperwork one more time, Maria and I tried small attempts at conversation. Unfortunately, my proficiency in Spanish was limited to my mother's old college textbook that I had started poring over two weeks earlier. We resigned ourselves to encouraging smiles and glances and the occasional hand squeeze.
When Toriz was called, we filed into a small room with a large desk in the front facing two smaller desks on opposite sides of the room. The three of us sat behind one desk, and the factory owner, a large Hispanic woman, sat at the other (this is uncommon because factory owners are male, and the majority are Korean). We waited in silence, each side pretending not to stare at the other, until the judge entered the room with an interpreter in his wake. As soon as he sat down, the owner burst into a furious and frenzied defense, slinging accusatory insults at Maria throughout the monologue. As she was winding down, pausing for breath, the judge recommended that she hire a lawyer.
She then launched into a new speech about her failing health and her inability to handle the expenses and stress induced by a lawsuit. The judge looked on impassively as she approached hysteria, culminating with a long wail of self-pity, after which she
proclaimed that she would do anything to get rid of the stress of the lawsuit. She turned to Alejandra and asked her what was owed. Alejandra quickly calculated the maximum amount of damages that could possibly accumulate under a judge's decision. The judge verified her numbers. The owner agreed to pay all of it. The judge once more told the owner that she could hire a lawyer and argue for a lower settlement, but she refused to drag out the lawsuit any longer.
Maria left the court room with a decision of $3000.00 in her name, three times as much as she was originally owed, a momentous victory for both Maria and the Garment Worker Center. The three of us held our composure until we reached the bathroom at the end of the hall from the Department of Labor s office. As soon as we were all inside, we burst out laughing and hugged each other as we repeated fragments of the hearing. The rejoicing in that sterile restroom was the most inspiring moment of my summer. At that moment, all of us believed that the system of justice was present, intact and supportive. For Maria especially, whose only encounters with the government have been threats of deportation and tax bills, it was gratifying to know that she was able to obtain the same rights and protections as any other inhabitant of the city.
I ended my internship on that high note of possibility. I left the Garment Worker Center at the end of August, shortly after Maria's hearing, believing that she would receive her due in the twelve installment checks that the settlement had established. But several weeks later, when I was back in Los Angeles for three days before leaving for my fall term at Dartmouth, I dropped by the Garment Worker Center one last time. Maria happened to be there, and after we greeted each other enthusiastically, it came out that she had received only the first installment check. It was for $114.46. When the next check was due, she and Alejandra went to the factory to request it, and found the shop occupied by an entirely different garment factory. No one there had ever heard of Inco Fashion or an owner named Mrs. Aurellano. As an unregistered factory, it will be nearly impossible to find. As Maria choked up over the word desparecido, I realized that any hope of worker empowerment I had gained over the summer was foolishly naive. This cycle of exploitation is ageless. This summer I learned that my grandmother used to work as a buyer in the New York garment district in the late 1940's, and as we compared our knowledge of the two eras, we realized that absolutely nothing except the faces of the exploited has changed. So why do we try to change the system at all? Through the long and often boring days of this summer internship, I was looking for an answer to that question. And after meeting truly dedicated activists, ranging from workers to students to non-profit staff, all I can come up with is that there is nothing else to do. In the face of injustice, you can't look away. You may be considered foolishly idealistic, and you may never see your goals realized, but you can't live with yourself if you don't fight for your principles. In the end there is nothing to do but try.
Last Updated: 8/7/11