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Book Review

L.A. Fashion's Sweatshop System

BEHIND THE LABEL Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry by Edna Bonacich and Richard P. Appelbaum; University of California Press $19.95 paper, 414 pages


The term "sweatshop" periodically invades--then fades from--popular consciousness. Seventy-two Thai immigrants are found virtually enslaved in an El Monte apartment complex surrounded by barbed wire, working against their will for $2 an hour. Garment workers, both in New York City and abroad, are discovered to be earning pennies per piece on Kathie Lee Gifford's Wal-Mart label, prompting a lachrymose apology on national television. The $200-billion-a-year fashion industry embraces its shame, then haute couture delivers Prada kiss-print chiffon, Dolce & Gabbana python silk and Ralph Lauren all-American neoprene on the runways of New York, Paris and Milan. Glamour trumps drudgery. Which is the point: Sweatshops are a fashion don't, and thinking about them puts a crimp in a shopping spree.

In their penetrating examination of the Los Angeles apparel industry, Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum reach a disturbing conclusion: Sweatshops are endemic to the business and just won't go away. The economics of the needle trade and the evasive morality of its bosses, they argue, have created a "mobile, far-flung, often outlaw industry . . . in which each layer squeezes the one below it, in which relationships are hidden behind a thick curtain of secrecy, [and] in which legal lines of authority and accountability are all but nonexistent."

Los Angeles, they write, is the "sweatshop capital of the United States" with "more people . . . employed in the apparel industry . . . than anywhere else in the nation, more than in New York, and far more than any other center." Indeed, the garment industry generates 10% of L.A.'s $282-billion economy.

The fashion business concentrated immediately south of downtown is, the authors say, "exploitative at its core." A vast, continuously replenished pool of Asian and Latino immigrants, many here illegally, provides plenty of unskilled, cheap, nonunion labor. This is the new proletariat, trapped in the low-price, low-wage economy, fueled by retailers and consumers chasing bargains, among them inexpensive clothes whose labor costs are kept to less than 5% of the retail price of the garment. These working poor have made L.A. the nation's manufacturing capital and apparel its leading light industry.

Garment work is piecework, performed at breakneck speed often during 80-hour weeks. Jobs appear and disappear faster than fashions change. There are no benefits, few raises, and overtime is almost never paid. In this Dickensian system, the average garment worker earns $7,200 a year; the average retailer's chief executive, $1.2 million.

The sewing factories--in reality, tiny shops where fewer than 10 women and men transform precut cloth into pret-a-porter--are themselves "small operations with low annual sales and high mortality." Known as "contractors," these businesses exist by bidding to produce clothing at the lowest possible price for "brand-name manufacturers"--familiar, L.A.-based labels such as Guess, Carole Little and Bugle Boy.

Contractors' profit margins are slight, and keeping wages low is the key to survival. Meanwhile, the authors report, "the real profit centers in the industry are the manufacturers and retailers." The authors argue that manufacturers, if they chose to, could alleviate sweatshop conditions. Instead, they hide behind the fiscally precarious and entirely dependent contractors--by one estimate, as few as 15 manufacturers control four-fifths of the contractor base in Southern California--to squelch workers' wage demands. "Maintaining the fiction that they are completely independent businesses [acts] as a shield against the claim that they should pay union wages to the people who actually sew their clothes," Bonacich and Appelbaum write.

"No better system has yet been devised to keep workers fragmented and powerless." Individual bands of workers must battle 2,000 separate employers, each of whom vehemently suppresses workplace unrest. Moreover, "any contractor who flirts with the idea of authorizing unionization will wind up an untouchable, shunned by all manufacturers and therefore . . . would commit economic suicide."

So the system of sweatshops persists, propelling Los Angeles at the dawn of the 21st century straight back to Jacob Riis' New York at the beginning of the last.

Bonacich and Appelbaum have done an expert job of deciphering the social, political and economic lineaments of L.A.'s manufacturing underside, and they argue convincingly that sweatshops will not disappear through governmental intervention or unionization. To undo this gloomy reality, the authors offer a strategy calibrated to the nature of fashion. "An industry that lives by image is very vulnerable to an unfavorable image," they suggest; awake the public conscience and the extractive apparatus will crumble. It is a Panglossian but forgivable conceit in a book of otherwise astute and hard-nosed observations.

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