By Stephanie L. Canizales
Americans often associate factory work—and the violence and exploitation of manufacturing industries—with distant nations like China, Vietnam, India, and Cambodia. While stories of workers “transported like pigs,” trapped behind barred windows and locked doors, and protected from death by suicide nets trigger broad concern, they tend to ultimately be cast off as the problems of “foreign” societies.
The Emmy Award-winning documentary Made in L.A. brought the narrative of garment worker exploitation back to U.S. soil, but the film focuses on the experiences of adult women. My research thus addresses a critical and unexamined space of inquiry: It moves beyond media attention and scholarship on garment workers abroad or adult laborers in the U.S. to center on the experiences of garment working immigrant youth. This project uncovers the conditions these young people encounter and the ways labor exploitation affects the long-term integration of unaccompanied immigrant youth.(i)
Youth at work
Since 2012, I have conducted research with Guatemalan Maya young adults between the ages of 18 and 35. Most arrived alone in the U.S. between four and 19 years ago. Although violence and poverty push some youth to emigrate, others migrate because years of violence and poverty have led to political insecurity as well as broken educational and occupational structures. In other words, for some the primary motivation is less immediately about violence or poverty than it is the lack of education and job opportunities in Guatemala. Some youth are further motivated by the desire to prevent the replication of their own suffering in the lives of their younger siblings.
Young Guatemalan migrants living in Los Angeles describe that, in their home countries, many begin working various jobs as early as four years old. These jobs range from shoe shining to manufacturing to agricultural work in order to supplement their parents’ meager income. Many also assume garment work in factories or, more commonly, in their homes, where children and their parents sew denim pants, embroider shirts, or attach sleeves and buttons onto a blouse or other products intended for the U.S. market.
In societies ensnared by mass poverty and oppression, including the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, cycles of violence are naturalized and workplace exploitation is normalized. Youth who aim to work to contribute to the family income but are unable to secure employment in their home countries view migration as a natural (and sometimes only) next step in ensuring their family’s survival.
This is the case of many of the Guatemalan youth who work in downtown Los Angeles garment factories. As youth share with me, they quickly discover that “uno no viene aquí a recoger dinero” (one does not come here to pick up money [off of the streets]). Instead, the same neoliberal economic policies that govern their work options, conditions, and livelihoods in Guatemala dominate the U.S. labor market. The structure of the garment industry in Los Angeles and the nature of the work of undocumented immigrants limit their options for financial stability and impact their mental, emotional, and physical health in the U.S.
My ethnographic research focuses on the integration experiences of Guatemalan young people who arrive unaccompanied in the United States and live and work in Los Angeles. I have spent over 500 hours participating in support groups, church youth groups, cultural events and community garden gatherings, as well as conducting formal and informal interviews.
Telling stories of poverty, hunger, and suffering, youths’ experiences evidence the impact of the expansion of free trade policies on migration. These policies have decreased local agricultural production and manufacturing, increased food insecurity, and undermined the public sector workforce. And while Central American leaders of the 1970s and 1980s attempted to reduce poverty through land redistribution or taxation of foreign companies, the U.S. thwarted these efforts by sending the CIA to remove these leaders, thereby introducing more violence to the region and further spurring migration.
Contemporary Central American migrants, including children and youth, leave their homes in search for families already in the U.S., but also as a strategy to provide for their families who remain abroad. Unfortunately, many youth who migrate in search of educational opportunities and work to alleviate their family’s poverty do not find refuge in the U.S. and continue struggling to make ends meet.(ii)
The Los Angeles Garment Industry: poverty and exploitation in the shadows of affluence
The global clothing and textile industry is projected to generate nearly $3.2 trillion in 2015, and the global apparel industry represents 2 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The success of these industries is in part due to “fast fashion,” a term used to describe the transition of the fashion industry from two fashion seasons—Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter—to the production of 52 “micro-seasons” per year. While many do not notice this production trend, this shift in manufacturing style has been a long time coming.
“A few years ago, a factory supplying a major retailer would have expected to manufacture 40,000 garments across four styles for 20 weeks. Today it will be lucky to get commitment from the retailer to manufacture four styles at 500 garments per week for just five weeks. The remaining 30,000 will be ordered at the last minute, when the design team has worked out whether the mainstream consumer has been inspired by Taylor Swift, Daisy Lowe, Lindsay Lohan or none of the above” (Siegle 2011). New trends are released every week, filling the racks of stores like Anthropologie, Forever 21, the Gap, H&M, Zara, and other stores that arguably define the industry. The goal of fast fashion is for consumers to purchase as many garments as possible and as quickly as possible, or else risk feeling “out of style.” While fast fashion keeps people buying, it also keeps people working.
Los Angeles, the epicenter of fast fashion, hosts a garment district that spans 100 blocks. The rise of the garment industry in Los Angeles in recent years has garnered praise, but it has also fallen under scrutiny, as when a drug cartel used a garment wholesaler to launder money from the U.S. to Mexico. In 2015 the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles released a report arguing for the recognition of the plight of garment worker mothers who struggle to find childcare while at work. Some of the key findings in my own work in this field include high levels of exploitation, poverty, and marginality of garment working youth (Canizales 2015).
Many consumers remain unaware that sweatshop-like factories line the streets of a city like Los Angeles, which is commonly associated with fame, fortune, and luxury. In the last major study of the Los Angeles garment industry, sociologists Edna Bonacich and Richard P. Appelbaum (2000) define a sweatshop as:
A factory or a home work operation that engages in multiple violations of the law, typically the non-payment of minimum or overtime wages and various violations of health and safety regulations. According to this definition, many of the garment factories in Los Angeles are sweatshops. In a sample survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor in January 1998, 61 percent of the garment firms in Los Angeles were found to be violating wage and hour regulations. Workers were underpaid by an estimated $73 million dollars per year. Health and safety violations were not examined in that study, but in a survey completed in 1997, 96 percent of the firms were found to be in violation, 54 percent with deficiencies that could lead to serious injuries or death (3).
In 2014, I volunteered as an English language translator for garment working youth at wage theft hearings in the Los Angeles branch of the Labor Commissioners office. During this time, Labor Commissioner officials and pro bono attorneys expressed frustration with their inability to keep track of pop-up factories in Downtown Los Angeles and the informal channels through which licensed garment factories rent out spaces for other unlicensed manufacturers to set up shop. Also of concern is the structure of the garment production process that allows retailers, contractors, and manufacturers to deny responsibility of work place violations by redirecting blame elsewhere (Bonacich and Appelbaum 2000). As a result, licensed and unlicensed factories in Los Angeles are often not kept accountable for the work conditions and treatment their employees endure. And when asked, many youth cannot confidently say the name of contractor or factory where they are employed, since no clear signage is displayed outside many factories. The ways in which garment work shapes undocumented workers’ lives beyond the confines of these workspaces also remain hidden.
The everyday lives of young garment workers
Arriving between the ages of 12 and 17 and without a parent or guardian traveling with or awaiting them, Guatemalan youth workers enter Los Angeles’s low-wage labor force to support the families they leave behind. Many enter the garment industry, where they work 11-hour days for up to six days per week in Korean owned factories, many of which are managed by Latino floor supervisors.
Garment workers around the globe are paid piecemeal. That is, rather than being paid for the number of hours worked, workers are paid for the number of completed pieces — 2-cents per button sewn, 5-cents per sleeve, 11-cents per zipper. In this way, the onus of low payment is placed on the worker. Since workers do not select their daily assignments, they cannot predict the money they will earn. They instead work feverishly to make a few hundred dollars by the end of the month. By foregoing lunch breaks, trips to the restroom, or drinks of water, individuals attempt to maximize every minute. These conditions result in back and neck pain, migraines, eye aches, nervousness and anxiety. Some youth spend days and weeks living on the streets of L.A. because they are unable to earn enough for their rent.
Many of the Guatemalan youth I interviewed report working in hot, dimly lit, poorly ventilated garment factories for anywhere between 58 and 66 hours of labor per week. A young garment worker in his or her first weeks on the job might make $85 per week. Over time, these young people make between $280 and $420 per week. Wage theft—when an employer withholds earned pay—is also frequently reported.
One of the most common forms of wage theft is through the denial of overtime hours. Youth describe how floor managers clock workers in and out each day. One young man showed me a time sheet that clocked him in between 2 and 5 minutes after 8AM and out at 5PM every single day for close to 8 months. He describes that he wakes up every morning at 5AM to be at work at 6AM and does not leave until about 7PM. Another young man calculated that over $8,000 was withheld by his employer during a one-year timeframe.
The LA Times recently covered garment factory wage theft, featuring the experiences of a 23-year-old Guatemalan man who filed a complaint with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. The article reads,
In seven years, the Guatemala native has worked as a sewing employee in some 40 factories, he said in Spanish through his attorney, Kevin Kish. At most sites, the bathrooms were filthy. Once, he was pushed to the ground by an angry supervisor.
Almost all the facilities paid him per piece stitched— a quarter for a normal T-shirt or as little as two cents for a simpler garment. Laboring for 50 to 70 hours a week — Monday through Friday and a half-day on Saturday and sometimes Sunday — would earn him about $300, always paid in cash.
[He] filed his complaint after being fired for seeking a raise, he said. The claim was ultimately settled.
“I don't mind the work and even like it, but sometimes I feel ashamed because of the conditions in which I work and the amount I'm paid for it," he said. "But you get used to it, and you have to do it.’”
In a support group I observe as part of my doctoral research, young Guatemalan garment workers describe their work and financial struggles. A young man who works on garment repairs, which requires taking apart incorrectly made pieces but is paid according to how many damaged garments are re-sewn, explains:
“Esta semana estuve haciendo reparaciones. Tuve que descoger medio día. No gane nada y ando un poco estresado. No me fue muy bien.”
“I was doing repairs this week. I had to [take the clothes apart] for half of the day. I didn’t earn anything and now I am stressed. [This week] didn’t go well for me.”
Another young man shares that he attended work while sick; despite his discomfort, he worries about how it will affect him the next day.
“La semana pasada tuve catarro. Eso me afecta mucho en el trabajo.… y después pienso en mañana. ¿Que voy a hacer con el dolor de cabeza mañana?”
“Last week I had a cold. That really affects me at work… and then I start to think about tomorrow. What am I going to do with a headache tomorrow?”
Of course, youth do not only think about themselves and their well-being. They also express concern about their families. This concern further motivates or convinces them to continue their work, and to fulfill the goals they set out for themselves when they left home.
One person describes,
Estuve peleando el dolor emocional porque no puede ayudar a mi mama. Pensé muchas cosas, “¿Que tal si se muere?” No pensé mas en eso. Pensé en lo que necesito lograr.
“I was fighting emotional pain because I wasn’t able to help my mom. I thought of many things, ‘What if she dies?’ I didn’t think about that more. I thought about what I need to accomplish.”
A young man who often contemplates suicide because of his severe loneliness and anxiety shares:
“Vine con una meta aquí. Vine por mi mama. Sufre mucho. Me siento responsable por mi familia hoy. A veces me siento triste y solo pero tengo que aprender manejar eso. Mi vida es diferente hoy. Si me quito la vida, ¿quien va cuidar a mi mama?”
“I came with one goal here. I came here for my mom. She suffers a lot. I feel responsible for my family now. Sometimes I feel sad and alone but I have to learn to control that. My life is different now. If I take my life, who is going to take care of my mom?
These stories of violence and suffering are silenced and made invisible by the structure of the garment industry. Consider payment: When asked how they are paid, youth describe a process of going to the bank to cash their checks. These banks, they explain, are inside the garment factory. On the designated payday, garment workers are handed a single sheet of paper with what appears to be an image of a check. Workers then line up in the factory owner’s office and hand off their printed check in exchange for cash. This, of course, leaves the youth without proof of labor.
Ultimately, the entire work/pay transaction is done in-house. To some workers, the transaction feels legitimate and even honorable, but the garment factory owner’s meticulously controlled system and (falsely) documented trail leaves undocumented workers invisible-- without proof of work, payment, or presence in the factory. I have encountered numerous young people who might qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) but are unable to apply because they do not have documents demonstrating their presence in the U.S. since arrival.
Similarly, many of the young people I have interviewed note the importance of education in changing their circumstances, but they are unable to attend school due to their work schedules or are unable to afford continuous enrollment in English classes. Those who attend class do so with tired eyes and little energy. The structure of the garment industry and the absence of a parent or guardian hinder the integration of unaccompanied youth in consequential and long-term ways.
The art of resistance
Resistance against systems of violence and oppression in the garment industry takes many forms, and indeed, worker strikes in Cambodia and China and protests in Bangladesh represent only a few of the most recent stories captured by the media. While garment workers in Los Angeles have not yet organized a movement against the injustices they face in the L.A. garment industry, many do engage in quotidian forms of resistance. In my research, youths' narratives of pride emerge as one such form. Though young garment workers often see workplace violations as simply the nature of the industry and life in the U.S.--particularly those who can only refer to work experiences in their home country--the skills they acquire through garment work, how hard they work, and the quality of the final products they create comprise meaningful, if not defiant, narratives for themselves and others.
The young man in the above LA Times article notes, “I don't mind the work and even like it.” Other youth in my research often share that despite the dehumanization that comes with the work conditions and the pay they receive, they feel pride and sometimes enjoyment in their work. To them, seeing a completed project brings a sense of satisfaction. Youth who had engaged in garment work in their home countries might have worked from home or in a small factory. They thus think it is prestigious to be a worker of a U.S.-based factory with elaborate machinery. The ability to operate large and loud machines and to move from sewing zippers on Citizens of Humanity denim pants to seams of a chiffon dress prepared for Bloomingdale’s is a source of pride. This is what sociologists Jacqueline Hagan, Ruben Hernandez-Leon, and Jean-Luc Demonstat (2015) refer to as the “Skills of the ‘Unskilled.’”
Young garment workers are additionally aware of the prices of the garments they are sewing. Because of the cost of the item, the time and skill dedicated to its completion, and the target clientele, garment workers view their work as art. They may earn despicably meager wages, yet many youth see increased wages over a long period of time as an accomplishment. It is a symbol of skill, hard work, efficiency and patience. One young person explained to me, “Yeah, you start off getting paid very little but then you get paid more. That means you are moving quickly. It means you are learning.” Another enthusiastically agreed, “According to how you learn, you earn!” Though youth might not engage in strikes and protests, they humanize their experiences on the margins by resisting the notion that they are unskilled workers.
Global production and trade policies not only shape the lives and livelihood of those abroad but within our own borders as well. The influx of unaccompanied migrants in 2014 exemplifies the perpetuation of this historic trend. Though news coverage on unaccompanied children has waned, we must continue to focus on understanding the root causes and consequences of child and youth migration, especially those that are exploitative, violent, and deny young people’s human rights. At the same time, we must also turn our attention to the integration of young people in the U.S., supporting the institutions that create positive conditions for youth’s integration and well-being while reforming or dismantling those that impede integration and worsen the conditions of suffering for youth. Closer regulation of the garment industry will facilitate this not only for unaccompanied youth workers in the U.S., but low-wage, and potentially undocumented people, more broadly.
About the author
Stephanie L. Canizales is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California. This research was generously funded by USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, Canizales’ dissertation examines patterns of integration and belonging among unaccompanied Guatemalan youth in Los Angeles. The National Science Foundation’s Sociology Program generously funds her research.
Bonacich, Edna and Richard Appelbaum. 2000. Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Canizales, Stephanie L. 2015. “American individualism and the social incorporation of unaccompanied Guatemalan Maya young adults in Los Angeles.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38(10): 1831-1847. DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2015.1021263.
García, María Cristina. 2006. Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Hagan, Jacqueline, Ruben Hernandez-Leon, Jean-Luc Demonsant. 2015. Skills of the “Unskilled”: Work and Mobility among Mexican Migrants. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Menjivar, Cecilia. 2011. Enduring Violence: Ladina Women's Lives in Guatemala. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
[i] An “unaccompanied child” is a legal category applied to minors under the age of 18 who have no lawful immigration status and no parent or guardian willing or able to care for them in the U.S The young people with whom I work have not been apprehended and, therefore, are not juridically considered “unaccompanied children”. Yet ‘unaccompanied’, in many ways, accurately reflects the ways in which these youth migrated unlawfully and lived in the U.S. without a parent or guardian.
[ii] Guatemalan migrants who leave their homes in search of work cannot be categorized as economic migrants exclusively. The weak political, social, occupational, and educational infrastructure that spurs their migration is due, in large part, to the civil wars that plagued the Central American region in the 1970s and 1980s and have left a legacy of instability and institutional mistrust (Menjivar 2011; Rodriguez 2006).