GWC is a non-profit membership-based organization of garment workers. Our mission is to help garment workers to organize to end sweatshops created by the $30-billion California retail industryâ€™s subcontracting system.
GWC is led by a 9-member worker Board of Directors. We have helped over a hundred workers win over $1.4 million in owed wages, penalties, and damages. Members of GWC are also leading a boycott campaign against Los Angeles-based retailer Forever 21for using sweatshops in L.A. to make their clothes. GWC sponsors workshops and intake clinics where workers can come and speak to staff or worker peer counselors.
After being open for only one year, GWC was named one of the Most Influential 2002 by the California Apparel News.
Los Angeles, the Sweatshop Capitol of the U.S. According to the 2000 census, the 100,000-plus garment workers in Los Angelesâ€™s 5,000 shops earn on average only $14,000 per year, well below the poverty-level income for a family.
The U.S. Department of Labor conducted a study of garment factories in Los Angeles in 2000 and found:
- 2 out of 3 garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws
- 3 out of 4 factories violate health and safety regulations
DOL found in 1998 that Southern California employers owed as much as $80 million in unpaid wages to garment workers.
Here is much more information:
In the fall of 1999, Sweatshop Watch convened a series of meetings with garment workers, including Thai and Latino workers who had been imprisoned in a slave shop in El Monte, to discuss the creation of an organization dedicated to the struggle to end sweatshop abuses in Los Angeles. As a result the Garment Worker Center opened its doors in January 2001.
Overall, the Garment Worker Center has accomplished much in its three years of existence. The Garment Worker Center is one of the only multi-ethnic and multi-lingual worker organizations in the country. We are proud to be an organization led by Latina and Asian garment workers. With our worker leaders, we have developed a multi-pronged approach to address sweatshops and worker exploitation. We have concentrated on worker organizing and empowerment, policy advocacy and coalition building while our partner organizations have led a legal strategy. Here are some highlights of 2002-2003:
- WON more than $1.4 million in owed wages for workers and collected over $800,000 since the Center opened
- Trained 15 workers to be peer advocates & are assisting with cases.
- Settled a significant case with a manufacturer, O&K clothing, in which they adopted a consent decree and settled over $100,000 in owed wages.
- Elected Worker Board now operating as program decision makers.
- 125 Active Members with the Center
- 30 Workers are trained public speakers
- 2 Garment Workers were hired as Organizers
- Established a Health Project
- Established a Womenâ€™s Group
- Started emergency loan program and check cashing programs.
- Garment Worker Center named one of the Most Influential in 2002 by the California Apparel News.
- Launched a National Speaking Tour for Forever 21 workers.
- Over 40 workers from 17 different factories who sewed Forever 21 clothes now active with the Forever 21 boycott.
- Garment Worker Center staff doubled in size.
- Started weekly wage clinics in El Monte & Los Angeles.
- Began strategic planning process with worker board & staff.
- Moved into a new office double the size of the original.
- Trained worker leaders in recruitment, case management, organizing skills and media work.
2. CONSTITUENCY, ORGANIZATION AND STRUCTURE
The Garment Worker Center primarily serves garment workers in Los Angeles: 100,000 workers employed in more than 5,000 sewing shops. These workers are newcomers from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, China, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere. 85% of garment workers in Los Angeles are women. 75% are Latina/o, and 15% are Asian. Generally between 30 - 50 years old, some are in their 20â€™s or teens. Most are monolingual in their native languages. They are contingent workers, paid by the piece and often employed seasonally. According to the 2000 Census, the average annual income for a Los Angeles garment worker is $14,000, well below the poverty level for a family.
The membership of the GWC has grown to over 250 garment workers, and more than 125 are active in the Center, coming to actions or meetings to discuss cases and campaigns. The Center only has a membership program for individuals. Over 700 workers have come to the Center for workshops or activities and we encourage older members to recruit new people to the Center. Workers decided on a membership fee of $20 every 6 months. Board members call other members to tell them about events and to remind them to pay dues.
Leadership development is one of our main priorities. Every meeting or presentation, we identify workers to facilitate or help present materials. As we develop our membership base, we are working with the Board in developing their organizing and leadership skills but also identifying workers to also develop. We have also just started a strategic planning process with the Board. The strategic planning process includes political and organizing training for Board and staff. It has been a great opportunity for Board and staff to evaluate the structure and development of the Center. Cameron Levin has been hired to facilitate the process, with funding from the LA Womenâ€™s Foundation. We estimate that it will take us a little more than a year to finish. Of course, implementation of the plan will be incorporated into our daily work on an ongoing basis. We currently discuss strategic planning at each Board meeting and every other weekly staff meeting. Topics for the process include: power analysis, membership program, decision-making procedures, recruitment and retention of new members, campaign strategy and evaluation. We are developing a process to create a long term strategy for the Center. We are evaluating our current worker programs and creating a two year organizational development plan. This comprehensive plan will be used to create weekly and monthly workplans for the staff and Board. To prepare the Board for these comprehensive discussions, we have an extensive training incorporated into the process. The general trainings will accompany the personal Board development plans.
The garment industry is one of Californiaâ€™s most important manufacturing industries, raking in $30 billion each year. Los Angeles is the nation's largest garment center, with 5,000 garment factories employing 100,000 women, men and children. An estimated 4,500 of these factories are classified as sweatshops -characterized by sub-minimum wages and working conditions hazardous to workers' health and safety. In fact, a recent Department of Labor survey of Los Angeles garment factories reveals that 67% violate minimum wage and overtime laws, and 75% violate health and safety laws. Because the large majority of garment workers do not speak English and fall well below the poverty line, they are often ill-informed about labor laws and extremely hesitant to inquire after their rights. Less than 1% of garment workers belong to a union.
Garment workers and their advocates must contend with the reality before us: 100,000 garment workers are living in a city where labor laws afford them little or no protection, workers rights attorneys are few and far between, and organizing efforts are extremely difficult. Although many garment sewing jobs may leave the country in the coming years, we believe that garment workers will remain, as will a certain portion of garment production. In order to build on the current interest among garment workers to address imminent changes in the industry -resources and a central resource space are needed.
- Build a base of organized garment workers.
- Make retailers take responsibility for working conditions in which clothes are sewn.
- Enable workers to advocate on their own behalf.
We are working toward a future where all workers labor decent hours and earn a living wage; where their working and living conditions are safe and healthy; and where corporations who exploit people are held accountable. To achieve this, we are organizing with garment workers in our communities to lead the struggle for justice. We are able to learn from our members which strategies are most effective in protecting workersâ€™ rights; what gaps in resources need to be filled; what workers themselves need on a day-to-day basis; and what types of solutions will bring about systemic and long-term change. By learning from our members through organizing and advocacy, and filling in the gaps, we strengthen the organizing efforts of our members and work for industry-wide change. We are researching upcoming changes in the industry, and we plan to form international partnerships in order to continue this work on a global scale.
Outreach and education.
Outreach among Latino workers in the L.A. area has been relatively easy because those workers are concentrated downtown near our office and because the Spanish-language media has been extremely helpful in promoting the GWC. To reach Asian garment workers, we hold office hours in El Monte and Monterey Park once a week. We hired a part time Chinese Worker Organizer, who is a garment worker, to focus on Chinese garment workers. We hold workshops every month to attract new members to the Center. Workshop topics include wage and hour laws, health and safety, globalization, and immigration laws. We have a Womenâ€™s group that meets monthly and also provide a space for worker exchanges with other workers from around the world. We have also provided trainings for speaking to the media, what to do in an INS raid, how to facilitate a meeting, and filing taxes.
Multi-ethnic, multi-lingual monthly meetings.
Garment workers realize the importance of building alliances across race and gender to create a strong movement for workerâ€™s rights and economic justice. Each month, we offer a variety of workshops to help educate workers on larger issues. Workshop topics include globalization, effects of the war, reproductive health, childcare, speaking to the media and filing taxes. Our approach to educating workers is more holistic. We understand the importance of addressing issues outside of the workplace such as health, womenâ€™s support, financial independence and social support.
Direct Action & Campaigns.
Garment workers have a clear understanding of the structure of the garment industry. They know they are not paid minimum wage and overtime because the retailers and manufacturers are setting the contract prices too low and reap enormous profit from their labor. They want to stand up for their rights and hold these companies accountable. Garment workers have spoken out at numerous press conferences to demand justice, and they have participated in several protests and educational forums.
Using a participatory model of training, members of the center engage in leadership development. At every worker meeting, we include a discussion on a political issue or a training on organizing skills. Our curriculum builds workers' knowledge of and experience with political movements, workplace rights issues and organizing. At our worker-facilitated quarterly membership meetings, members update each other on their campaigns, learn about new issues and get to know each other better. At all meetings, workers facilitate, make presentations and make decisions for the Center. Workers have become spokespersons for the Center in the media and coalition meetings. Workers are now serving as peer counselors to expand our capacity to help workers. We have also started a monthly womenâ€™s group which has allowed our female members a safe place to talk about domestic violence, self esteem and personal independence.
Case Management Program.
We help workers directly settle disputes with employers. We do not emphasize service as a means to change the industry but we use it as a tool to outreach to workers. We hold weekly drop in clinics in downtown Los Angeles and El Monte. We have trained workers to be peer counselors to help with wage clinics and health educations. Since most garment workers are mistrustful of organizations, our case management system helps to build trust between the workers and us. We distribute a Know Your Workplace Rights booklet and comic book (in Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese & English) which contains information on workers' rights to minimum wage and overtime, a description of how to collect wages by filing a claim with the Labor Commissioner, and a workbook for recording hours, wages, labels, etc. Workers have sought our assistance with unpaid wages, wrongful termination, harassment, unsafe working conditions and racial discrimination. Our main objective is to take direct action first, before going through the legal system.
Through its policy and advocacy work, the Center provides its members an opportunity to engage in political education and participate in workshops to develop advocacy skills. Workers testify at government hearings, media events and public presentations. We also have played a strong role in getting workerâ€™s health and safety issues addressed. The garment industry will not change by itself. Consumers must put pressure on the retailers to stop the use of sweatshops.
5. How Your Program Will Meet JFJ's Guidelines
Sweatshop workers tend to be the most vulnerable members of our societyâ€”immigrants and women with limited English language skills, supporting families on poverty wages. The Garment Worker Center will help fill a void for Los Angeles' large garment workforce by providing workers with information about their rights, skills for advocating on their own behalf, and a space to organize. The Center will also help develop an organized base of workers to demand accountability from the garment industry and provide workers with skills that they can use throughout their lives regardless of where they may work in the future. The Garment Worker Center has received political support from the Los Angeles Jewish community, which has been a valuable ally since many garment manufacturers are members of the same community. Continued support from the Jewish Fund for Justice, would not only give us financial support, but also important political support.
6. Program Management
In February 2002, the GWC held its first worker retreat with about 30 workers in attendance, with 18 Latinos and 11 Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin speaking) workers. This was an opportunity for the Center's members to give extensive feedback on our past work and discuss the programs they would like the Center to take on this year. The members also began discussing formal membership criteria and development of a governing board. In the Spring of 2002, active workers adopted a membership criteria and elected a governing board of Latino and Asian garment workers in September 2002. The Board has taken a leadership role in the Center and our membership has grown to over 250 members. In September 2003, we elected our second Worker Board, with 5 out of 11 returning from the year before.
Policy decisions are made by the Worker Board. Right now, the Board is developing their own by-laws and personnel policies to prepare for the Center to become independent. Since Sweatshop Watch is our fiscal agent, our budget is reviewed by Sweatshop Watch but is now approved by the Worker Board. For political issues, we present the information to the workers and they vote on whether the Center should endorse or participate. Daily management of the office is coordinated by Kimi Lee, Director of the GWC. Joann Lo is the Lead Organizer and she oversees campaign work and membership development. Alejandra Domenzain is our Case Manager and Health Educator. She handles our worker cases and is developing our health program.