When most of us hear the word sweatshop, our minds automatically travel to a foreign county or a former time and we tuck the thought away. What most people don’t realize is that sweatshops are still a prevalent issue in today’s society and occur closer to home than we think. In fact, the sweatshops in which Forever 21 clothing is manufactured are located right in our backyard, in Los Angeles, California.
In the garment industry, retailers sit at the top of the industry ladder and subcontract production to manufacturers and sewing contractors, or factories. For too long, this subcontracting system has allowed retailers, like Forever 21, to reap enormous profits off the backs of sweatshop workers who occupy the bottom rung of the ladder.
In November 2001, workers from six Los Angeles-based factories called for an official boycott. The workers, who sewed for Forever 21, were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in minimum wage and overtime pay. They worked long hours in unsafe and unsanitary conditions and were fired for speaking out about the poor conditions.
This is a newscast about the protests:
“We worked ten to twelve hours a day for subminimum wages and no overtime,” said Esperanza Hernandez, one of the garment workers. “A lot of our factories were dirty and unsafe, with rats and cockroaches running around.”
“At first they promised that I would be paid $300 to $350 per week,” said Araceli Castro, who also sewed Forever 21. “But when I went to pick up my first paycheck, it was only for $250 even though I had put in extra hours in overtime. My boss claimed that she would pay me more when there was more work, but she never did.”
The Garment Worker Center (GWC), a non-profit association dedicated to protecting the rights of garment workers, took up the case. Together with the 19 workers, they staged protests and speeches around the country, including a demonstration in front of the Chang’s 9.8 million dollar Beverly Hills home.
At first, workers attempted to negotiate directly with the management of Forever 21. However, Forever 21’s refusal to negotiate and cooperate in the state investigation of the workers’ claims prompted workers to file a lawsuit in September 2001, represented by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. Included in the lawsuit were complaints about:
— Sub-minimum wages
— No overtime
— Working 10-12 hours per day
— Working Saturdays and Sundays
— Having to take work home
— Dirty, unsafe factories with rats and cockroaches
— No potable water
— No health insurance
— Fired for asking for small wage increases or for asking for the minimum wage
In response, Forever 21 filed defamation suits against the workers, GWC employees, and the GWC itself for connecting Forever 21 with sweatshops, and maintained that they were not responsible for conditions at a supplier’s factory. However, with over $400 million in profit and by being the top of the “fashion ladder,” Forever 21 was in a prime position to demand safe and sanitary conditions for the people who manufacture its clothes, Don Won Chang just chose not to make these regulations.
For three years, the workers, the GWC and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center suffered an uphill battle against the courts, the factories and Forever 21. The original case was dismissed and had to be appealed. In the meantime, many of the workers involved in the suit could not find work due to the stigma of being associated with a lawsuit.
Finally, in March 2004, the Los Angeles Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that retailers could be held accountable for sweatshop abuses and an undisclosed settlement was reached with the workers, the number of which had grown from 19 to 33.
Since then, there have been no more sweatshop-related lawsuits filed against Forever 21. However, that is not the last time Forever 21 has seen the courtroom due to unethical business practices.