Your Cheap Forever 21 Dress Is Ruining Workers' Livelihoods

“You can’t buy anything you need. Between rent and food, everything is gone, no money is left,” says Pedro Montiel, who makes $4.50 an hour — less than half of California’s minimum wage.

Poor workers are bearing the cost of Forever 21’s low-priced fashion attire.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported Wednesday that it conducted 77 investigations at garment factories in Southern California this year and found wage law violation 85 percent of the time, resulting in $1.3 million of unpaid wages for 865 workers.

The contractors were mostly making clothes for retailers like Forever 21, Ross and TJ Maxx but in some cases, clothing also went to high end stores like Nordstrom. Although wage violations have always been in the industry, they have reached a record high this year.

“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,” said Ruben Rosalez, a regional administrator with the Labor Department.

Officials said majority of the labor force in the factories are immigrants and have limited knowledge of English. They are also not aware of their rights or are afraid to speak up for them. Their employers, on the other hand, only care about achieving the lowest labor cost.

In some cases, workers were paid as little as $4 to $7 an hour even though the state’s minimum wage is $10. Joss Garcia, 35, who works in a factory that makes clothes for Ross, gets 22 cents for stitching one blouse — and he gets a paltry check of $350 to show for it at the end of the week.

“It seems unjust,” said Garcia, who immigrated from Puebla, Mexico, in 2000. “They say the minimum will go to $15 [an hour], but we keep earning $6 or $7…. The stores don’t want to pay more for the clothes.”

“You can’t buy anything you need. Between rent and food, everything is gone, no money is left,” said Pedro Montiel, who makes $4.50 an hour putting labels and other finishing touches on blouses. 

Rosalez said he already conducted meetings with the offending retailers, who acknowledged the issue but yet they haven’t come up with any measures to solve the problem.

Besides the three major retailers above, the factory that makes products for Macy’s owed $93,000 in wages and overtime pay for 44 workers. Auditors also found a Los Angeles-based contractor that makes products for Nasty Girl owed 37 of his employees nearly $87,000 in unpaid wages. The labor force is paid a flat rate of just $270 for a 50-hour week.

Banner/Thumbnail Credit: REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

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