The fate of a new bill to further protect the wages of people who cut and sew apparel in California looks to be up in the air.
The Garment Worker Protection Act, introduced early this summer by State Sen. Maria Durazo and State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, passed the State Senate last month with a vast majority of the vote. But now it’s been “placed on suspense file” in the State Assembly Committee on Appropriations, leaving open the possibility that it won’t make it to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom and be signed into law. Although the bill is said to have enough support to do so.
Its authors and supporters argue the new bill, SB-1399, is designed to close some loopholes in an earlier one enacted in 1999, which they say has allowed the roughly 45,000 men and women, mostly immigrants, who cut and sew for garment factories in California to be paid well under minimum wage, including through the common industry practice of paying people per piece. According to the bill, this practice has brought the average hourly wage for garment workers down to roughly $5. Minimum hourly wage in California is $13 and is slated to go up to $15 next year.
In promoting the passage of the bill, cosponsors Bet Tzedek, the Garment Worker Center, the California Labor Federation and the Western Center on Law and Poverty argued that “no industry is rifer with employment violations than the garment industry.” The UCLA Labor Center is also supporting the bill, but is not an official cosponsor.
By being placed on “suspense file,” the bill will have to wait for a designated twice-a-year session in which the Assembly considers all bills that have a fiscal implication for the state above $150,000. It is a unique process in the State Senate and Assembly.
Durazo and Gonzalez could not be reached for comment on the process of the bill or its likelihood of passing the Assembly, which will read the bill two more times, allowing for possible changes.
It is entirely possible that the bill will make it out of the Assembly, as it did the State Senate last month. Both legislative bodies are majority led by Democrats.
But the appropriations committee is beholden to the state budget, which went from an expected record surplus of $21 billion at the start of this year to a deficit of $54 billion due to the coronavirus pandemic and its numerous economic implications. And by being on suspense file, the bill will not get any further testimony, for or against passage, nor will the vote be public, meaning it could essentially disappear at this stage.
The bill does include expected cost increases for the state, although not significantly taken in the context of an entire state budget. It would cost just under $1 million in “special funds” the first year of its enactment, and roughly that much on a yearly basis going forward, mainly through increased funding that would be needed for the Division of Labor and Standards Enforcement, which would be handling an expected increase in claims from garment workers.
The bill is also facing opposition from pro-business groups in California, like The Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, The California Chamber of Commerce and the California Fashion Association. They all claim the bill is overbroad, namely because it includes retailers as possibly being held liable for confirmed wage violations as “brand guarantors” that order garments, and so they should have some responsibility in whether the people who make apparel for them are treated fairly under the law. The CFA holds the bill could discourage brands manufacturing in California and that current laws offer plenty of recourse for wage theft claims by garment workers.
“If these disreputable contractors are found to be taking advantage of their workers, they should be held to the law as written, not able to affect a new law by saying ‘it’s not our fault,’” CFA president Ilse Metchek said in a Wednesday statement.
According to the bill, a retailer could be held liable only if it orders garments it intends to sell, so a private label brand or a brand that operates retail locations. Third-party retailers that have no direct role in manufacturing would not be considered liable.
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