Francisco Tzul has worked in the Los Angeles garment industry for eight years, sewing clothing on cramped factory floors and struggling to get by on low wages. An undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, Tzul found himself out of work when the pandemic hit in March.
So when he heard in May that LA Apparel, a brand run by the former CEO of American Apparel, was hiring workers to make masks, he jumped at the chance.
“Here’s an opportunity, a golden opportunity, I told myself,” he told the Guardian in Spanish. “From one day to the next I became an essential worker, with more dignified wages.”
But this “golden opportunity” nearly cost him his life. Just two and a half weeks into the job he began experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, which he says he contracted at work. He wound up hospitalized and intubated, unsure if he would survive. Tzul emerged after more than a week in the hospital to find himself homeless, kicked out by his roommates on account of his illness.
Tzul is one of the many garment workers across Los Angeles recruited to meet a booming demand for face masks. LA Protects, a scheme implemented by the city to fast-track mask production, has partnered with numerous local companies to produce protective gear for frontline workers.
The program, announced on 27 March by the LA mayor, Eric Garcetti, has resulted in more than 7 million non-medical masks for grocery store workers, non-medical hospital staff, and others. Over 400 companies initially signed up for the LA Protects scheme, including LA Apparel, although not all are currently participating.
The city program, combined with increasing demand from consumers and businesses, has spurred many LA garment companies to pivot to mask-making, hiring new workers and refocusing existing production facilities. But garment workers and advocates say it has come at the expense of the health of the people who make them.
Outbreaks at factories now making masks speak to the scale of the problem. LA Apparel has been forced to close its three factories, where county health officials report at least 300 confirmed cases and four deaths. Keep It Here Apparel Manufacturing, which makes clothing for a number of other companies, has had 19 confirmed cases, according to the department of public health. And at F&G Sewing, a manufacturer that works on behalf of companies including Fashion Nova, workers have reported more than a dozen people sickened. (The mayor’s office emphasizes that LA Apparel, F&G and Keep It Here are not current participants in the LA Protects program.)
Daisy Gonzalez, an organizer with the workers’ rights group the Garment Worker Center (GWC), says the Covid-19 outbreaks in LA are “100% industry-wide”. While the exact number is unknown, organizers like Gonzalez have for months been hearing reports of workers who returned to factories and got sick.
Marissa Nuncio, the director of GWC, says the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating longstanding industry issues such as low pay, poor working conditions and the lack of a safety net. “It was already a very dangerous and unhealthy space for workers,” says Nuncio. “And now it’s just intensified and the stakes are higher.”
According to city guidelines, all factories in the LA Protects scheme should provide health screening for staff members who may have been exposed to or are displaying symptoms of the virus. There should be 6ft of distance between workstations and between workers when eating or when entering or exiting the building.
Garcetti said in July that operating guidelines for businesses were “not optional, not a menu; they are mandatory”. The mayor’s office told the Guardian that city representatives have performed hundreds of site visits to companies participating in LA Protects to ensure compliance.
Nuncio’s organization has been reaching out to the county’s public health department to make sure these inspections happen, but the large and often disorganized nature of the industry, which exploits a largely immigrant workforce, makes the problem hard to control.
“When you have wall-to-wall violations, both wage and hour, and health and safety, it’s going to be tough to get a handle on that just through enforcement,” she says.
‘There were too many people to separate everyone’
Dov Charney, the owner of LA Apparel, is a controversial figure who was fired from American Apparel in 2014 amid sexual harassment allegations. Since then he has turned LA Apparel into a well-known brand that sells basics such as T-shirts, sweatshirts and bodysuits directly to consumers.
In mid-March the company began revving up mask production for government agencies as well as regular customers, using Instagram to promote images of models wearing the masks, as well as the workers who make them. The company’s offer of $14.25 an hour, with the possibility of extra pay if workers produced more, made Tzul excited to take the job.
Tzul says the company took temperatures and gave out hand sanitizer on the factory floor. Maribel Maldonado, another garment worker who tested positive for Covid-19 while working at an LA Apparel factory, says workers wore masks. But both Maldonado and Tzul say there was no consistent enforcement by management for any of these measures, and that the biggest risk was a lack of social distancing.
Maldonado, 50 and originally from Mexico, had been laid off from her job cleaning hotel rooms due to the pandemic when she heard LA Apparel was hiring mask-makers. She began working there in April, trimming the loose threads off cloth masks, and was diagnosed with Covid-19 in May. She says she got the illness at the factory, and that she was healthy until she started working there.
Maldonado says work stations were not set up the required 6ft apart, social distancing was impossible, and enforcement was lax. “There were too many people to separate everyone,” she told the Guardian in Spanish. “We didn’t fit.”
Maldonado believes there were too many willing to work and that made it easy for managers to ignore concerns, since someone was always ready to take their place. She says street vendors would make their way on to the factory floor to sell snacks; Tzul also describes workers crowding around the microwaves during lunch breaks.
She began displaying symptoms of Covid-19 on the factory floor, including diarrhea, nausea, cold sweats and chills. She says the managers at LA Apparel did not pay much attention to her symptoms, and it was only with the help of GWC that she was able to get tested and discover she had the virus.
In June, county health officials began investigating LA Apparel and found that the company was violating mandatory public health infection control orders, including social distancing requirements. At the time, the company reported 151 confirmed cases of Covid-19.
On 27 June, the department of public health (DPH) ordered LA Apparel to shut down its operations until it could implement the proper safety and infection protocols. The order was still in effect when, 10 days later, the company reopened its manufacturing plant. DPH issued another directive ordering LA Apparel to cease operations, and on 10 July DPH confirmed that there are more than 300 cases of Covid among LA Apparel workers, and four have died.
“The death of four dedicated garment workers is heartbreaking and tragic,” said Dr Barbara Ferrer, the director of DPH, in a statement. “Business owners and operators have a corporate, moral and social responsibility to their employees and their families to provide a safe work environment that adheres to all of the health officer directives – this responsibility is important, now more than ever, as we continue to fight this deadly virus.”
Ferrer said her department would continue to monitor LA Apparel and other manufacturing sites to make sure they were safe working environments for employees.
In response to the county’s claims that LA Apparel had flouted health orders, Charney told the Guardian his company has been “totally cooperative” with county health officials, despite receiving conflicting directives. He said that LA Apparel was “doing everything we can to take care of our people. We love our employees, they’re our partners, and we’re working to build an environment of safety and prosperity.”
In response to workers’ claims, Charney says the company has taken precautions to keep people safe and insists that social distancing between work stations has been enforced, but he acknowledges that enforcing distancing during breaks is challenging.
“We are working very hard. We reorganized our factory many times,” Charney says. He is skeptical that people caught the virus at work and attributes the recent outbreak to a countywide spike in Covid-19 cases, saying workers could have been exposed during lunches or after work hours. “We can’t control social distancing: what people do at home, or when they go out and eat,” Charney says. “To even imply that it’s because we’re not doing our duty is laughable.”
He says the company now plans to test all of its workers every week.
Life in a precarious industry
The pandemic has highlighted the precariousness of Los Angeles’s 45,000 garment workers, most of them women and immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Workers are typically paid per piece, rather than an hourly wage or salary. According to a UCLA Labor Center/GWC study published in 2016, piece rates are so low that workers make an average of $5.15 an hour.
Speaking about his time in the garment industry, Tzul says it’s impossible to build up any savings doing such low-paying work. “That means we can’t be prepared for difficult situations like the one we’re living through now.”
A worker at F&G Sewing, who spoke to the Guardian in Spanish on condition of anonymity, says she is currently making masks, clothing and robes (the kind used by salon workers) for Fashion Nova, a brand that has been accused of wage violations. The US Department of Labor found that Fashion Nova clothing was being manufactured in factories owing millions of dollars in back wages to workers. The company told federal investigators last year that it was addressing this with its contractors. Meanwhile, the worker at F&G says she makes five cents per mask and eight cents per robe – if she works hard enough during her 12-hour shift, she can make about $5 an hour.
She describes workers toiling in a basement with small windows, no ventilation, no soap in the bathroom, and only one or two feet between workers; conditions that she’s used to, but which now come with deadly risks. Until recently, the windows were covered with cardboard and the doors stayed closed.
F&G Sewing says it signed up for LA Protects but was not getting many orders through the program. Regardless, the company reports having received a visit from a city inspector as recently as last week.
The worker estimates she is one of 10 people at the factory who have gotten sick with Covid-19, one of whom has died. In May she became sick with an illness that left her with chest pain and struggling to breathe – both symptoms of coronavirus – but she did not get tested at the time.
A representative from F&G Sewing says the company is complying with all the necessary regulations and has implemented safety protocols such as providing face masks, distancing workers, and making sure each workstation is used by just one employee. The company says the factory floor is well ventilated and the workforce is content, and that workers have been asked to stay home if they experience symptoms. F&G could not confirm whether any of the workers have contracted Covid-19.
Keep it Here did not respond to a request for comment.
In response to questions about worker safety under the LA Protects program, the mayor’s office said it had announced in June a limited-time deployment of mobile testing units to factories in need. LA Protects has also rolled out additional workplace safety criteria for companies participating in the program.
Tzul, meanwhile, is back at work in another garment factory. But Maldonado says she would “never go back” to the factories. “Because that’s where I got sick.”
Source: THE GUARDIAN