Chapman Joins the Cause

Natasha Porreca, a senior at Chapman University founded a club, Fair Wear, at Chapman University that speaks out against injustice and unethical practices in the clothing industry.

At the suggestion of a fellow Internet Communications classmate, I interviewed Natasha for the blog and urge you all to not only avoid shopping at companies such as Forever 21, that use sweatshops, but also to become active and speak out against this issue! An easy and fun way to do this would be to support Fair Wear. They meet every other Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. in the Panther Pad.

My interview with Natasha:

Why did you and the president start the club?

Because we are really interested in the anti-sweatshop movement and raising awareness about unjust labor practices that occur in the apparel industry.

How many members does the club currently have?

We have a small steering committee that meets to discuss plans and a larger group that meets to support our causes and events.

What initiatives has Fair Wear been working on this semester?

We held a fundraiser for Haiti, and also teamed up with PIKE to raise money at their White Out party int he beginning of Spring semester. We ended up raising about $600 for the American Red Cross to give to Haiti. We’re planning on screening a documentary that we created and edited, describing the problems with sweatshop labor and what students have done in the past to help, in about three weeks. We are also a part of the Social Justice Council, which coordinated Diversity and Equity Week and the Tunnel of Oppression, which will be on Tuesday.

What are the future plans for Fair Wear?

We’re hoping to make Chapman be a member of the Workers’ Rights Consortium which will ensure that all of our apparel sold on campus is made through fair labor.

Are there any local organizations or non-profits that Fair Wear has or is planning on partnering with

We are a member of the United Students Against Sweatshops, which is a national organization dedicated to educating students about how they can help stop sweatshop labor. We have also been in communication with the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force to see what we can do to help with their cause.

Once again, I highly recommend that everyone attends a meeting and checks out this club! Being an educated consumer is important and Fair Wear can provide you with a vast amount of information regarding the use of sweatshops in the fashion industry.

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Once Unethical, Forever Unethical?

Once upon a time, in a strange land full of concrete, congestion and pollution, a low-income neighborhood manages to create an oasis. The neighborhood was given a plot of dirt, full of trash, junk and other debris. A group of about 350 families transformed it into a thriving garden, with about 150 different species of plants, among the sea of warehouses that surround it. The neighborhood used this garden to feed their families since food is expensive and there are few grocery stores in the area.

Sounds like a modern, real-life fairy tale right?

Wrong.

It was like a fairy tale until Forever 21 and L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stepped in.

Before:

After:

Forever 21 acquired the right to use the land to build a warehouse from the developer, Ralph Horowitz, who bulldozed the farm in 2006. According to the L.A. Times, Forever 21 formed close ties with mayor Villaraigosa, who once publicly supported the farm. From the L.A. Times article:

He has received nearly $1.3 million in contributions and commitments from Forever 21 and its executives over the past two years for initiatives ranging from tree plantings to his own reelection campaign.

It is no secret that Forever 21 is a sponsor and supporter of mayor Villaraigosa. Tom Philpott, a political commentator and writer, exposed just how closely Forever 21 and mayor Villaraigosa are connected in his 2008 article in L.A. Progressive:

Lee [VP of Forever 21] and founder Don Chang were two of several business leaders who accompanied Villaraigosa on his trade mission to Asia in 2006. Six months later, Forever 21 gave $100,000 to Villaraigosa’ s successful campaign to elect three new school board members. In recent months, the company agreed to give $1 million to Villaraigosa’ s Million Trees L.A. initiative, which encourages residents to plant more trees

However, Forever 21 supported the destruction of South Central Farm? Interesting.

The company also gave $150,000 to Villaraigosa’ s staging of the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Century City last year, a donation so significant that Lee was given a speaking role at the event’s closing reception at the Griffith Park Observatory.

With that information, I’ll let you be the judge on if Forever 21 “bought off” the right to use the land by giving donations to the proper people.

For videos with more background information regarding South Central Farm:

SOUTH CENTRAL FARMERS.

The Raid on South Central Farm.

For a video from the protests, see below or click here.

Photos from the protests:

Flyers about mayor Villaraigosa’s involvement:

Forever 21’s response to the protests:

My response to Forever 21: Why would a indigenous people who are content farming want to work in a warehouse for a company known to abuse sweatshop regulations?

For a blog with more information about Mayor Villaraigosa, please follow this link: Home Sweet Home?

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Garment Workers Fight Back

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.

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Sweatshops Defined

After discussing my blog topic with various friends and classmates, it became clear to me that many people have incorrect images of sweatshops and have many misconceptions about what qualifies a factory as a sweatshop.

Part of the reason for the confusion is that there are several different ways to define a sweatshop. According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is any factory that violates more than one of the fundamental US labor laws, which include paying a minimum wage, keeping a time card, paying overtime, and paying on time. The Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees, or the U.S. garment workers union, defines a factory that does not respect workers’ right to organize an independent union as a sweatshop. Other non-profit organizations for the protection of the workers define sweatshops as any organizations that do not provide enough wages for workers to support a family or as factories that fair to follow proper safety and health regulations.

Another question I frequently encountered when discussing my blog was why the clothing industry has such an extensive history of sweatshop use while other industries do not.

The softness of the garments used to make clothes, along with the complicated patterns involved, means that apparel production doesn’t easily lend itself to mechanization. Since its invention 150 years ago, the sewing machine has been, and remains, the best tool for manufacturing clothing. Sewing machines must be operated by people, sitting or standing and piecing together portions of cloth. What some people don’t realize is that every stitch of our clothes was made by a person hunched over a worktable, not by an automated machine.

Often, factories pay workers a “piece rate,” which means workers wages are based on the number of items they complete in a shift. If workers hope to earn a decent income, they have to work hard, and they have to work long. They have to sweat. (Click for a list of companies that have made the “Sweatshop Hall of Shame).

Copyright infringement and the high-quantity/fast-production business model (which Forever 21 uses) often lead to payment by piece rate, mandatory overtime or requirement to take work home. I will discuss how these issues are correlated and how they influence sweatshops and the industry as a whole in later blog posts.

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Forever 21 is Forever Unfair

Imagine:

The factory is hot. You’re covered in sweat. You are on overtime for a ten-hour shift, but not getting any extra compensation. The most you’ve had to eat has been a measly half of a day-old sandwich and you haven’t had a bathroom break in the past seven hours. Your back hurts from being hunched over a worktable, your hands are cramping but you must continue the stitching. You steal a glance around, decide to take a one-minute break to stretch. Your supervisor happens to sees you, screams for you to continue working, threatening to physically abuse you if you do not.

The scenario above describes the work conditions in which Forever 21 clothing is manufactured.

The purpose of this blog is to persuade Don Wong Chang, the founder and C.E.O. of Forever 21, to run Forever 21 under more ethical policies and procedures.

These are the only two photos I could find of Don Wong Chang in the media (he and his wife and co-founder of Forever 21, Jin Sook Chang, are very elusive and private):

In this blog, I will analyze the many lawsuits that have been filed against Forever 21. I will include the most high-profile cases from various categories, all of which deal with unethical conduct in one or more ways. The first case I will highlight is a sweatshop case, the second is a case regarding the controversial construction of a warehouse, the last are about copyright infringement violations (which can lead to sweatshop use, as I will explain later). Although these issues may seem unrelated, each concern unethical business practices and affect all levels of the fashion industry, from the garment workers to top designers.

As someone who has been in the fashion industry for the past six years, I know the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve seen it all: I’ve been a model, I’ve been a stylist, I’ve planned fashion shows, I’ve been a photographer assistant and have worked at an agency. I’ve worked at St. John Knits in their high fashion showroom on 5th avenue, I’ve worked with international and domestic textile mills and print studios and have done PR for Tatyana Peter, a couture designer. From all of my experience in the field, and from designing/making my own clothes, I know firsthand all the hard work that goes into manufacturing a piece of clothing and understand the repercussions that copyright infringement has on the garment workers and the industry as a whole.

I will apply all my fashion knowledge and skills to making a change in Forever 21’s business practices. Although outlining the cases and providing information is a great starting point, I plan to take this a step further and hold an interview with a Forever 21 store manager who was working at the time of the protests. I will also highlight groups and companies that are fighting for ethical practices within the fashion industry.

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