I’m 100% certain that this is why my body is messed up

There’s a thriving garment industry in Los Angeles which specializes in small volume production. The employers, who supply the trendy casual sportswear for companies such as Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Papaya, and Wet Seal, employ about 45,000 workers in Los Angeles.  A survey of more than 300 of those workers describes the dirty, dangerous and unhealthy conditions of their jobs. The survey results and companion findings from focus groups are reported in Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories: Health and Safety in Los Angeles’ Fashion Industry.

  • Nearly 72 percent of the workers indicated that their factories were brimming with dust
  • Nearly 50 percent reported poor ventilation which resulted in excessive dust and heat
  • Nearly 47 percent reported that bathrooms were soiled and not maintained
  • 49 percent reported that their factories did not have a first aid kit
  • More than 42 percent indicated that exit doors were obstructed and inaccessible
  • About 40 percent reported infestations of rats, mice, and cockroaches
  • More than 29 percent reported that the lighting inside the factory was insufficient
  • Nearly 27 percent reported that they did not have fresh water to drink at their workplace

The numbers tell just part of the story. About the dust-laden air, workers said:

“they typically had to find their own protective methods – even using scraps of fabric as masks….. One worker (a sewing machine operator) shared her experience: ‘My eyes get so red. It is really sad. All day there is all this dust around and it is even worse for those fellow workers who don’t wear goggles or glasses.’”

About the obstructed exits, the report notes:

“Workers in focus group sessions were seriously worried about cluttered, blocked exits, dangerously overstocked workspaces, and a general crampedness that impedes their movement about the factory.”

About the poor lighting, the report explains:

“Garment workers, especially those who spend years sewing 10-12 hours a day and 5-6 days a week in under lit workplaces, often complain about their vision.”

About the unsanitary bathrooms the report notes:

“Many workers explained that they would sometimes simply forego the restroom altogether, and not only because of their uncleanness, but because they also fear retaliation or pay reductions under the piece rate system for taking bathroom breaks.”

The garment workers also reported that the heat in the factories is unbearable. A sewing machine operator who participated in one of the focus groups said:

“The heat at the factory is so overwhelming that one time I thought my feet were burning, between the heat of the pedal of the machine and the heat inside the shop, I felt like I was going to pass out.”

The researchers paint a grim picture of the job for garment workers in Los Angeles, including why workers say their bodies are “messed up.” Sewing machine operators typically sit for 8-10 hours per day on hard folding metal chairs. They hunch over the equipment all day long and repeat the same movements with their shoulders, arms and hands hundreds of times a day. Pressers and trimmers stand all day handling hundreds of pieces of fabric.

One worker described the consequence of the repetitive tasks in the awkward posture:

“I’ve worked in the garment industry for 24 years. … I worked at my last factory for about 13 years, stitching pockets onto expensive jeans. …The chairs we used for work were your typical fold up metal ones and because of the way the jean pockets had to be stitched on, we would sit pretty crooked to produce the clothes faster. I’m 100% certain that this is why my body is messed up. My left shoulder hurts the most. This is where most of the pain accumulates. However, this pain trickles down onto my back (middle and lower) all the way up to my left thigh and knee.”

The research for Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories: Health and Safety in Los Angeles’ Fashion Industry was conducted by the Garment Worker Center, UCLA Labor Center, and UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health program. The authors and workers make four recommendations to improve working conditions in Los Angeles’ garment industry. They include holding both the vendors (suppliers) and the brands responsible for working conditions; prohibiting piece-rate pay systems; and ensuring that garment workers are covered by a recently adopted state regulation to protect workers from excessive heat.

The report includes terrific visual aids. A companion 7-minute video which features interviews with garment workers is available, too.