WASHINGTON, D.C. — During the peak of the Covid pandemic in 2020, Grigorio Mancilla and many of his fellow Los Angeles garment workers halted progress on their typical clothing patterns to instead tackle a new project: fabricating face masks amid the city’s critical shortage of PPE.  

But though Mancilla and the other workers had shifted focus to a new type of clothing item, their payscale stayed the same. At times laboring for upwards of 15 hours a day, they continued to be paid a “piece-rate” — that is, per piece of clothing produced, not hourly.

“In one factory, I was working from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. And at the end of the week, I was able to charge $500,” Mancilla told the LA Public Press, speaking in Spanish, through a translator. “In the garment industry, there’s a lot of exploitation.”

Driven by these experiences Mancilla traveled to Washington DC, along with more than 80 other workers and organizers, to meet with federal lawmakers. And they’re pointing to the success of California’s Garment Worker Protection Act — a sweeping law passed in late-2021 which banned piece-rate pay and made brands and retailers share liability for wage theft along with manufacturers — as an example of what legislative protections can mean for workers.

“There is a growing reckoning that we cannot be a $3 trillion [global] industry making rock bottom wages,” said Ayesha Barenblat, founder of the global advocacy organization Remake, which supports fair pay and climate justice in the clothing industry. “How can — in 2023 — we be making three dollars an hour?”

Indeed, data from federal regulators shows Mancilla’s experience is more the norm than the exception. Federal law requires that piece-rate workers be paid at least the minimum wage in each state, but a 2022 Department of Labor survey of Southern California sewing garment contractors uncovered some workers were making as little as $1.58 an hour — just 10% of what they were supposed to be earning. Of the 50 randomly-selected contractors and manufacturers investigated, 80% were in violation of labor laws. 

“We’re hearing more and more about forced labor in other countries,” said Daisy Gonzalez, campaign director for the Garment Worker Center (GWC), a labor rights organization headquartered in LA’s Fashion District. “Domestically, you know, we need to model the types of regulations that are needed globally.” 

The FABRIC Act, take two

Shortly after the enactment of the California law last year, a bicameral group of Democrats in Washington introduced the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act, which sought to provide a similar level of protections at the federal level. In addition to requiring more stringent recordkeeping and wage enforcement measures, the bill included grants and tax breaks aimed at wooing clothing manufactures back from overseas. 

But despite organizers’ success winning such protections in California, the federal bill ultimately went nowhere.

On Thursday, after a major push from organizations like Remake and the GWC, lawmakers again introduced the bill in both the House and Senate.

“It’s time to take bold action at the federal level to change the fabric of the American garment manufacturing industry so we can protect these vital workers and not only make American, but buy American,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the lead sponsor in the Senate, told the LA Public Press in a statement. 

Workers met with more than 20 lawmakers, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the lead sponsor of the FABRIC Act in the Senate (photo courtesy of Garment Worker Center).

“With domestic fashion manufacturing having declined precipitously from its peak in 1973, the FABRIC Act is essential to bringing back these jobs from overseas while holding manufacturers accountable for labor violations that are far too common in the industry,” echoed Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who introduced the House’s version of the measure.

Advocates say they’re hopeful about the prospects for passage this time around. In the year since the bill was first introduced, nearly 300 businesses and industry groups have endorsed it — including major brands such as Everlane and Reformation and labor giants like the AFL-CIO and SEIU. 

It’s also not the first time legislation around garment workers has stalled. Before it was ultimately successful in passing the California legislature, the California garment workers bill was voted down during the 2020 legislative session. 

“We are just growing our momentum and I am really hopeful that something will be moving this year,” said Gonzalez.

New tactics to win over skeptics

In the short term, prospects for the FABRIC Act’s passage are slim; lawmakers are busy with the usual tangle of Washington messiness. 

But advocates say that they were able to meet with more than 20 lawmakers this week as evidence of growing bipartisan support for the measure. Beyond pro-labor Democrats like Sens. John Fetterman (D-Penn.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), they also spoke with GOP Senators who have large garment worker populations in their states — officials like Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Tedd Budd (R-N.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). 

According to Remake, an advocacy organization calling for fair pay and climate justice in the clothing industry, close to 300 retailers and labor organizations have endorsed the bill (photo courtesy of Remake).

To win over skeptical Republicans, backers of the legislation have sought to reframe the bill as less of a worker protection measure and more one encouraging “made in America” manufacturing. They point to the $50 million Domestic Garment Manufacturing Support Program earmarked in the bill to help domestic clothing manufacturers with facility upgrades and workforce training. 

“It’s very difficult to compete, especially compete with China, without that investment,” Barenblat argued. “So that message really resonated with our Republican colleagues.”

In the meantime, organizers hope the California legislation will continue to show the need for federal action. Just this month, for example, the LA County District Attorney announced the creation of its first Labor Justice Unit by filing charges against owners of two garment industry businesses in South LA accused of paying workers as little as six dollars an hour.

The workers themselves, meanwhile, say the California measure has had a tangible impact on their lives — and should be a model for all states to follow. 

“When I make the minimum wage, I get to spend more time with my family,” said Mancilla, a 35-year veteran of the garment industry. “I used to leave the kids with the babysitter for a whole lot longer, and now I get to work less, make more money and spend more time with them. They don’t see me as this estranged father at this point.”