The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that garment workers at various Southern California factories were earning as little as $4 an hour. The workers were making clothes for brands such as Forever 21, Ross Dress for Less, and TJ Maxx. Note: $4 an hour is less than half of the state-mandated hourly minimum wage of $10.
The report came out after the California Department of Labor issued an investigation looking into the labor practices of 77 independent factories running in Southern California. In 85 percent of cases, labor violations were discovered. Those companies were made to pay their workers $1.3 million in lost wages and damages. Retailers such as Macy's and Nordstrom avoided repercussion because the Labor Department can only penalize companies that directly employ workers.
“This business model [using independent factories to produce their goods] has shielded them from any legal responsibility,” Ruben Rosalez, a regional administrator with the Labor Department told the Times. “The retailers are setting the prices. They’re saying, ‘Make this shirt for this amount,’ but it’s the workers at the end of the chain that are getting screwed.”
A Forever 21 representative denied any responsibility for the conditions in which the clothing was made in an email to the Los Angeles Times, saying the company "takes these issues very seriously, and requires all of its vendors to comply with these laws.” They did not say though, whether or not they would continue to work with these factories or increase the prices they pay their manufacturers.
This news shines a light on the reasons why brands like Forever 21 are able to sell clothes at the insanely low prices consumers have come to expect: criminally cheap labor. The truth for consumers is this, it's possible to ethically produce a dress for $18 without severely effecting a company's bottom line. What's more, it's important to remember that workers in these Southern California factories might have been given justice this time, but millions of workers in this country and around the globe are exploited in the name of low prices. That won't change until consumers begin to value human dignity over cheap clothing.
Simply put, every time you buy a cheap piece of clothing, you are aiding the sweatshop-labor industry. That should bother you.