Byline: Diane Dorrans Saeks

SAN FRANCISCO — California state lawmakers reached an agreement last week on a bill that guarantees wages for garment workers when their employers go out of business, or when they do not receive fair payment for work completed.
The measure, AB633, gives the state labor commissioner broader authority, plus more staff and funds to investigate and arbitrate alleged wage violations. This bill, said to be the strongest in the nation and backed by politically influential manufacturers such as Guess Inc., registered contractors and organized labor, was sponsored by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D., Sacramento).
The bill now goes to the governor’s desk. It is expected that Gov. Gray Davis will sign the bill into law before Oct. 10.
“This is an excellent first step for more regulation of the fashion industry in California,” said Randall Harris, executive director of San Francisco Fashion Industries, an 80-year-old trade association that represents 260 Northern California companies, including manufacturers, retailers and contractors. “It’s not a perfect bill. It required months of negotiations and a lot of compromise, but we are happy with it now.”
There are an estimated 160,000 garment workers in California. Wage violations in the industry, particularly in Southern California, have been a chronic problem. The Labor Department concluded recently that garment workers nationwide are owed as much as $73 million in back wages.
The intent is not to hold manufacturers liable, but to guarantee workers their just wages, noted Harris. Rather than a mechanism for suing manufacturers or retailers, it is a wage guarantee, he said.
“If a contractor cannot or will not pay workers, the manufacturer must now pay his proportion of the workers’ wages and overtime,” said Harris.
“Many large companies already have this practice in place informally, but now this expedited process of wage arbitration and enforcement will be in place,” he noted.
Harris charged that unregistered contractors, particularly in Southern California, have created the problems this bill seeks to solve. “This is the strongest worker protection for the apparel industry in the country,” he said.
Jessica McClintock, owner/designer for the 30-year-old Jessica McClintock fashion company, based in San Francisco, said that ideally, manufacturers, contractors and legislators will now work together to insure that this law has the desired effect.
“I’m totally in favor of compliance and enforcement that are done in the correct way,” said McClintock, who said she does all her manufacturing in the U.S.
“Laws like this make everyone wake up to these serious issues. If we all work together, we can keep manufacturing in California and have better control, quicker turnover, a better environment for business,” she added.
Garment worker representatives were also pleased with the bill. “Given the political reality in California that retailers and manufacturers have until now been opposed to responsibility for workers’ wages, this is a significant first step toward real garment industry reform,” noted Julie Su, an attorney for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, based in Los Angeles.
The money for enforcement will be raised from annual registration fees paid by manufacturers and contractors. The bill requires fees to be raised from the current $100 a year to $250 to $2,500 per year, depending on the size of the company. The increased fees are expected to raise more than $3 million for the state labor commissioner’s budget, allowing an increase in the department’s staff, and contributing more bite to investigations of grievances and stepped-up law enforcement.
Su, who noted that garment workers in California annually produce goods sold for an estimated $30 billion, said that problems have arisen from both registered and nonregistered contractors.
“I hope this bill means that workers will get their just pay and there will no longer be sweatshop conditions,” she said.