Maria del Carmen never set out to become an activist. But after working as a garment worker in Los Angeles for more than thirty years, having wages stolen from her by factory owners, making mere pennies per piece of clothing she worked on, and taking her kids to work with her on weekends because couldn’t afford childcare, she was ready for change.
“I wanted to see myself and my fellow garment workers make just wages. We have to go to churches asking for food, clothing and shoes,” she says. “With those miserable wages, it’s not enough for us to survive in a dignified way. You cannot pay the rent, no matter how small the apartment is.”
So del Carmen decided to organize. She got connected to the Garment Worker Center (GWC) in L.A., a non-profit dedicated to fighting for workers’ rights, and she started showing up whenever and however she could: marching in protests, testifying before local government and telling her story to the media. Many of her actions were in support of Senate Bill 62 (SB62), also known as the Garment Worker Protection Act, which was aimed at making fashion companies liable for abuses in their supply chains, and ending payment practices that allow employers to pay workers less than minimum wage.
There were plenty of discouraging moments. Some workers got fired when factory owners figured out they were fighting for their rights, and the threat of deportation kept other workers—many of whom are immigrants, some of whom are undocumented—from feeling able to safely advocate for themselves.
But then, after years of fighting for it, del Carmen tasted victory: SB62 was signed into law in September 2021, and went into effect in January 2022.
“I felt like a chain had been broken,” she says, recalling when she first heard the news. “I jumped in joy and said many times, We did it!”
Del Carmen’s experience points to a wider shift taking place in the fashion ecosystem. While advocates concerned with the industry’s deleterious impact on human rights and the environment spent decades attempting to use boycotts and consumer movements to provoke change, the passage of SB62 is indicative of a shift in attitude that looks increasingly to policy and regulation instead. The Fashion Act, a bill in New York, is another bill aimed at making the fashion industry more responsible in the U.S., while other regulations across Europe and Asia are looking to make it harder for brands to evade responsibility elsewhere.
“I felt like a chain had been broken. I jumped in joy and said many times, We did it!“
Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, realized that her own organization’s strategy needed to shift after a campaign aimed at getting Ross Stores to pay back wage theft in its supply chain failed to produce the desired results.
“It was a pivotal moment of saying, ‘We’re gonna keep beating our head against the wall of these brands if we don’t change the legal landscape so there’s more of a reason for them to pay attention,” she says.
SB62 was born of that recognition. Building on the foundation of a 1999 law that was meant to protect garment workers from wage theft but was too riddled with loopholes to accomplish its purpose, the Garment Worker Protection Act was drafted in partnership with Bet Tzedek, an organization focused on providing legal services to those who can’t afford them (“our mission was to translate what the workers had identified as their priorities into the legalese,” says Bet Tzedek directing attorney Dana Hadl).
The bill was presented by L.A. Senator María Elena Durazo, who saw it as a win for all Californians. When employers get away with wage theft, and the state has to pay workers back, that means that taxpayers are footing the bill for factories’ bad behavior, she reasoned. Plus, she wanted to create the kind of system where brands that were trying to do the right thing weren’t so easily outcompeted by less scrupulous companies.
“The number of garment businesses endorsing SB62 grew—they felt that it was important to do right by their employees, which they were doing, but here they were having to compete with businesses that didn’t feel the need to pay legal wages,” she says. “That created a huge disadvantage for those businesses that did abide by the rules.”
The support of fashion brands turned out to be crucial, according to Elizabeth Cline, a former journalist (and Atmos contributor) and currently the director of advocacy and policy at Remake, a non-profit focused on fashion advocacy. That’s in part because the bill earned opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce, a trade association representing some of the most powerful corporations in America.
“We had young women who, for the first time, were calling their policymakers. It felt as though the policymaking process was suddenly more accessible to them.”
“Every year they put out this list called the job killer list. If your bill gets put on that list, they have an over 90% success rate of killing it,” Cline explains. “And they put SB62 on that list.”
But the bill prevailed nonetheless due to the coalition of garment workers, ethics-minded small and medium-sized fashion businesses, politicians, nonprofits and concerned citizens that came together to support it.
It was that last category that excited Remake founder Ayesha Barenblat most: part of her organization’s focus during the campaign was on mobilizing ordinary citizens in support of the bill and showing them how to participate in the democratic process. It was a far cry from the shop here, not there tactics of yesteryear.
“We were teaching people about the nuts and bolts of this bill and coaching them about which committee members to call and what the talking points were,” says Barenblat. “We had young women who, for the first time, were calling their policymakers. It felt as though the policymaking process was suddenly more accessible to them.”
It’s this kind of civic engagement that many in the fashion advocacy space hope will continue to spread even beyond the adoption of SB62 (though there’s more to do on that front, Barenblat says: “there is a lot of outreach to be done so that workers know what their new rights are under this law, and so that businesses know how to be in compliance”). Nuncio has been encouraged to hear from organizations working with garment workers around the world about the ways they’re taking inspiration from SB62, as well as pioneering their own approaches to shifting policy in their local contexts.
As far as del Carmen is concerned, the idea that the seed planted by SB62 will continue to spread is one worth celebrating.
“Now we can live a little less suffocated,” she says. “It really impacted not just garment workers, but encouraged other workers and other institutions that it’s possible to win something that you strive for.”