U.S. Apparel Manufacturer Working to Create Change
How One L.A. Business Is Out to Change the Lives of Garment
Workers Everywhere story by christine triano | Whole Life
Times The next time you get dressed, take a moment to
look at the label inside your shirt. It may say Made in
China, or Made in the Philippines, or maybe Made in Mexico.
If you happen to find Made in the U.S.A., you may, like
many shoppers, breathe a small sigh of relief.
After all, that means you're supporting U.S. workers,
and if a job is done in the U.S., you can rest assured
that it was performed under safe conditions, and for a
decent wage. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Made
in the U.S.A. does mean the garment you are wearing was
in fact sewn together by a worker in the U.S. But as for
the latter points, there are no guarantees in today's
competitive garment industry-even when the garment is
manufactured within American borders.
Nearly seven years have past since Kathy Lee Gifford
wept on national TV over revelations that her Wal-Mart
clothing line was made by children laboring in Central
American sweatshops. That scandal helped raise awareness
of the burgeoning anti-sweatshop movement. It was also
one of many instructive examples of the relationship between
global free trade and how the goods we use and wear are
made. What it didn't do was offer consumers a sound alternative
to buying sweatshop-made goods. In terms of curbing sweatshop
abuses, there have been scattered efforts at fostering
greater corporate accountability.
The Clinton administration in 1997 launched the Apparel
Industry Partnership, a voluntary venture aimed at bringing
about a shift toward higher standards for garment manufacturing.
Kathy Lee initiated inspections at the plants making her
clothing line. There have also been a number of high-profile
consumer boycotts, including the anti-Nike campaign spearheaded
by the nonprofit human rights group Global Exchange.
But at the consumer level, the sweatshop problem is still
largely perceived as being a problem based offshore. Most
of us have heard U.S.-based horror stories, such as the
sweatshop discovered in 1995 in the L.A. suburb of El
Monte, where Thai workers were essentially enslaved in
a small garment factory. Still, to most consumers, buying
U.S.-made apparel is the best of all possible options.
That option could be much better, argues Cristina Vazquez,
regional manager of UNITE!, the union representing garment
workers. Explains Vazquez, as retailers push for lower
and lower prices "it's basically a race to the bottom"
when it comes to setting workers' wages. Of special interest
to Southern California residents is the fact that today,
a Made in the U.S.A. label likely means made in Los Angeles.
It also means that the clothes you are about to put on
your back were probably made in a sweatshop within driving
distance of your home. The X Difference Enter sweatX,
a line of colorful, casual sportswear with a potent anti-sweatshop
message. Manufactured inside a freshly painted beige and
white building in the downtown garment district, sweatX
is more than a line of clothing.
It's the proudly showcased product of teamX, a garment
manufacturer launched last year with start-up funding
from the Hot Fudge Social Venture Fund, a venture capital
firm created by Ben Cohen and a number of other socially-conscious
entrepreneurs from Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. When the people
behind Hot Fudge were looking around a couple of years
ago for new ways to fulfill the fund's mission to create
sustainable, progressive businesses, it turned toward
the sweatshop problem.
Looking at L.A., they noted the dismal statistics: Of
the approximately 5,000 apparel contractors in L.A., three
out of five were found by the U.S. Department of Labor
to have wage and hour law violations, and over half had
serious health and safety violations. According to Kimi
Lee, director of the Garment Worker Center, an education
and advocacy group, the apparel industry is second only
to agriculture in California, with $30 billion in annual
With the industry concentrated in and around L.A., that
means there are an estimated 120,000 workers employed
by the region's 5,000 garment factories. Of that number,
maybe six are unionized according to UNITE! Overall, Cohen
and company at the Hot Fudge Fund were struck by how just
pennies out of every dollar spent by the average apparel
consumer actually make it into the pockets of the workers
who make the clothes. Of the price of an average garment,
about 50% goes to the retailer that makes it (the name
on the label), while the remaining 50% is divided up between
the manufacturer (the company hired to get the apparel
made) and the sewing contractor (where the garment is
actually sewn together).
When the revenue is finally shared, the worker who made
the garment usually ends up with less than one percent
of its actual retail price. Most garment workers labor
long hours for minimum wage or less, almost never receive
paid holidays, sick days, vacation or benefits of any
kind, and are often denied overtime pay. In 1998, the
Department of Labor estimated that in a typical 90-day
period, the average apparel contracting shop accumulates
$3,631 in unpaid back wages. As a result, Lee's group
spends much of its time helping garment workers file wage
claims against past employers. "The manufacturers who
make things overseas have a tendency to want to see the
same prices here.
That creates an impossibility," says Joe Rodriguez, executive
director of the Garment Contractors Association of Southern
California, a trade group representing about 200 of the
better-run garment factories in the area. "By driving
prices down to the lowest level, it squeezes out any possibility
of higher wages for workers." Adds Lee, "If you think
about the competition, that means 5,000 contractors competing
for jobs from 200 manufacturers and retailers.
All of them are paying rent, overhead, the same costs
of doing business. But the one thing they can vary is
how much they pay workers." It was a direct response to
this business climate that led the Hot Fudge Fund to hatch
a radical plan: to launch a unionized, worker-owned apparel
manufacturing business in L.A.-and to turn a profit in
the process. One Year Later There was a big party to celebrate
the opening of teamX last April. Michelle Shocked performed,
everybody got free t-shirts, and hopes were high. Asked
if there are plans for a party to mark the company's one-year
anniversary, teamX sales director Larry Ameen shakes his
head and laughs. It seems the company is too busy to stop
and plan a party right now.
The factory floor at teamX is indeed humming. It is a
brightly lit space, with clean, white walls containing
a cacophony of sewing machines and Latin music playing
on the radio. Workers labor on Gerber cutters and Juki
sewing machines, top of the line equipment that helps
keep the air clean so employees don't have to wear face
masks. Colorful piles of sweatshirts, t-shirts, athletic
shorts, fleece pullovers, and canvas bags punctuate the
workspace. At 3:30 p.m. a bell rings, signaling the end
of a workday that begins at 7 a.m.
There is no mad rush for the exit. Most employees take
their time, finishing what they're working on, gathering
their belongings, chatting with co-workers as they head
out the door. Two men remain cutting fabric, working overtime
on a big order shipping out to Ben & Jerry's the next
day. According to teamX CEO Pierre Ferrari, it's too early
for the company to show a profit, but they are approaching
the break-even mark, with about $1 million in sales during
the first year in operation and projections of at least
$3 million in their second year.
Originally staffed by 20 garment workers, that number
has reached 57 and is expected to keep climbing. "At this
stage it's both exciting and nerve-wracking," says Ferrari.
The company has grown by building a customer base comprised
in large part by unions happy to buy sportswear and blankets
bearing their logos from a union shop. The remainder of
teamX's customers includes faith-based organizations,
universities and colleges, socially responsible businesses,
including Patagonia and Ben & Jerry's, and nonprofit groups,
such as Global Exchange. "It's great to have a product
to put our message on and that we can also support," says
Tex Dworkin, marketing and product development manager
for Global Exchange, which sells sweatX apparel in its
two fair trade retail stores, as well as through its Web
A former buyer for Whole Foods, Dworkin notes that there
are surprisingly few sweat-free companies to choose from
when it comes to buying t-shirts and other promotional
items. She adds, "With sweatX, we feel like we're working
together toward a sweatshop-free future." "What they have
done is a small first step, but it really does set a new
standard," says Richard Appelbaum, professor of sociology
at UC Santa Barbara and co-author of Behind the Label:
Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry. "You can't
depend on the patronage of the factory owner, or on the
consumer to buy sweat-free. TeamX really focuses on worker
empowerment." With an average wage of $10.78 an hour,
plus full benefits, including health insurance and paid
vacation, teamX far exceeds the industry standard.
Mara Rodriguez, 32, a sweatX cover stitcher who has been
with the company since its launch, describes it as a "very
different" place to work. In previous jobs, she often
worked 16-hour days, six days a week for minimum wage.
Breaks were infrequent and there was no overtime pay or
paid holidays or sick leave. Candelario Salazar, 39, has
been in the garment industry for 11 years, most recently
running his own garment shop. As he speaks, his shyly
smiling daughter Carmen, who comes to pick up her Dad
after work every day, stands beside him.
When his business failed after a client defaulted on
payment for a large order, he came to teamX willing to
take any job. He started out sewing and today is floor
manager. "This is the best company I've worked for, by
far. They respect the employees. There's a good salary,
benefits, paid holidays. In this industry, that's hard
to find." It's not just the garment workers who feel lucky
to have found teamX. Sales director Ameen initially turned
down the opportunity to join the start-up company-not
just once, but twice.
With over 20 years experience in the industry, Ameen
was used to working for companies with fat advertising
budgets and plenty of operating capital, including Jordache
and Pepe jeans. It wasn't until he saw how the company
would work explained to potential garment workers that
he was finally sold. Ameen, who previously had no experience
with social justice issues, today admits, "Honestly, I'm
embarrassed about my lack of social consciousness before
coming to teamX.
In the U.S., we don't look behind the label." Beyond
the Usual Suspects To date, the teamX story reads like
a corporate fairytale, with the company playing the role
of valiant knight saving a handful of lucky workers from
the rampant abuses of the garment industry. But fairytales
have resonance because they are passed on from storyteller
to child, and in the process teach us all a common lesson.
So how will the teamX tale unfold? Parenting books talk
about "modeling" good behavior as a way to teach children
by way of example.
By continuing to share its story, teamX is hoping to
do something similar. "Our story sells the company," offers
teamX president Chris Mackin, a consultant and expert
on employee-ownership who recently joined the company.
"We're hoping to make the most of goodwill from the entertainers,
big schools, unions and others that support us." Jackson
Browne recently ordered sweatX t-shirts for his next tour-the
kind of gesture that the company is counting on to help
bring its brand, and its anti-sweatshop message, to new
audiences of consumers.
Adds Mackin, "Our story is getting around. In a way,
PR is our marketing." There are core issues still to be
worked out. While the company is structured as a cooperative,
worker ownership has yet to be implemented. Right now,
the board of directors is reviewing the amount that will
be required for workers to buy into the co-op, which will
likely end up being somewhere between one and two month's
wages for factory workers. Management will buy in with
six or seven month's compensation.
As with many co-ops, teamX has and eight-to-one ratio
cap on entry-level to executive pay. Then there is the
issue of how teamX plans to expand its customer base beyond
the converted. Unions, universities, faith-based groups,
and other champions of teamX all share at a minimum a
set of core values that make them amenable to the company's
message. The question remains, can sweatX be a player
in a world where a basic white t-shirt made in China can
be bought for a dollar wholesale?
While the company produces a higher quality T-shirt than
many imports, at nearly $5 wholesale, there is no getting
around the fact that supporting teamX's mission affects
the bottom line. As CEO Ferrari notes, "In the end, the
retailers are really the problem. It's about the lowest
possible cost and that's how they buy. They don't think
the social justice issues are relevant. To make a change
in the garment business we first have to build a reliable,
stable customer base. But very quickly after that we have
to get to people [retailers] not thinking about this stuff."
To do that, teamX is counting on its model of conscious
Ultimately, they hope to expand not just in the U.S.,
but to take the teamX model abroad to Central America
or East Asia, where aggressive exploitation of garment
workers typically goes unchecked. "I look at us as a small
but powerful magnet that will hopefully act to raise the
standards in the industry," says Mackin. "Our ambition
is to operate eventually several facilities, but we also
hope that our example will mean other companies will follow
suit. While there might even be other union producers,
there is no other company that has combined union with
an anti-sweatshop message." Like in a fairytale, teamX
does seem to be beating the odds.
Rather than being dismissed by the garment industry for
their idealism, the company is building a solid reputation.
Last December, teamX was one of 10 garment manufacturers
recognized as being among "the best in the business" by
Bobbin magazine, the industry's leading trade journal.
"Anytime a company comes to L.A. determined to pay a living
wage, it sets an important example that no one needs to
be left behind," notes Danny Feingold of the Los Angeles
Alliance for a New Economy, a group leading the area's
living wage movement. It's an example that's hard to ignore.
The company's supporters hope the buzz is just the beginning.
Says UNITE!'s Vazquez, "Everybody's talking about teamX.
It's a big challenge that they have, but I think they
will make it." -Christine Triano is a writer living in