by Michelle Lin
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|Picture taken from Cheng, 1996|
In May of 1992, a Jessica McClintock Inc. garment contractor Lucky Sewing Co. filed for bankruptcy, leaving the company’s twelve seamstresses with $15,000 of bad checks. All recent Chinese immigrants, the women sought consultation and help of the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) (Kono, 2000). Further investigation revealed that Lucky owed creditors over $350,000, and the seamstresses were first in line for compensation (Delgado, 1996).
These seamstresses worked 10-12 hours per day and 6-7 days a week with no benefits. Not only are the workers paid for overtime, but also they are rarely paid the minimum wage which during the time, amounted to $4.25 per hour. Both of these are violations of the law stating that all workers must be paid at least the minimum wage and for overtime. Instead, seamstresses are paid by piece (collar, sleeve, etc.), without regard to how long or how hard they have worked (Delgado, 1996).
The actual workplace is no better for garment workers. The buildings in which they work in are poorly lit and inadequately ventilated. Workers cannot talk during work, they cannot stand, nor can they use the restroom except during lunch (Zia, 1996). The seamstresses’ dilemma poses an environmental justice concern because of the disproportionate environmental health hazards placed on immigrant Chinese women.
Looking at the overall pattern of Asian immigration, one can see that the first immigrants were educated and held professional skills. Changes in Asian immigration laws have changed the kinds of immigrants to the US, composing mostly of working-class or those of poor backgrounds. Moreover, NAFTA and GATT trade agreements have helped promote globalization of several economies, decreasing the number of protections for workers. More specifically, cheap labor is on the rise, and the ones that are targeted are usually Asian immigrant women (Shah, 1997).
Historically, cheap labor has been notorious in the garment industry. In San Francisco, the garment industry is the largest manufacturing sector, and the second largest industry next to tourism. About 90% of garment workers are women, and 80% of the women are Chinese-speaking. Less than 8% are unionized (Shah, 1997).
In the garment industry, clothing manufacturers, such as Guess?, Ralph Lauren, Gap, and Jessica McClintock hire contractors to make the actual garments. Competition among contractors is fierce, so that in order to stay in business, contractors must offer the lowest bids for the manufacturers to hire them. As a result, contractors look for cheap labor and offer few, if any, benefits for their workers. Many of these workers are recent women immigrants looking for any sort of pay to get established in the country (Anner, 1996).
Garment workers have had a difficult time seeking accountability from the manufacturers in the past. Under California law, manufacturers are not responsible for what goes on the in a contractor’s shop. Consequently, manufacturers can dodge accountability by shifting the burden onto the contractors. Because Lucky Sewing closed down, AIWA could target Jessica McClintock to account for poor working conditions and cheap labor (Anner, 1996).
Jessica McClintock, Inc.: Based out of California, Jessica McClintock is one of the most successful clothing designers in the United States. Her upscale designer boutique has become a brand name of fashion, selling prom dresses, evening wear, wedding dresses, and other “romantic” gowns (Louie, 1992). The company also sells fragrances and perfumes. Each year, the company earns an estimated $145 million in profit (Chin, 1992).
Lucky Sewing Co.: Lucky Sewing Co. is a contractor hired by Jessica McClintock to produce the actual garments. In 1992, Lucky Sewing Co. declared bankruptcy. No longer in business, it left 12 seamstresses with $15,000 of bad checks. Further research from AIWA revealed that Jessica McClintock Inc. had exclusively contracted Lucky Sewing for years (Delgado, 1996).
Map taken from Tiger Mapping Service, 1998.
In California, San Francisco County is one of the most ethnically and economically diverse areas in the country. According to the 1990 US Census, up to 724,000 people live in San Francisco County. Minorities make up approximately 46% of the total population, while Asian/Pacific Islanders consist of 29% of the total population, distributed throughout the entire Bay Area. Within the API population, the Chinese are the largest ethnic group with 62% of all ethnic groups. Of the 211,000 Asian Americans living in San Francisco County, there are 109,524 Asian American Women, composing 51.9% of all Asian Americans in the county.
Data taken from US Census Bureau, 1990
The Center for Investigative Reporting also did an account on the seamstresses’ story. The CIR article appeared in a LA Times Weekly issue. Overall, AIWA was fortunate to have frequent, positive coverage about the Garment Workers Justice Campaign (Delgado, 1996).
Community Support: One of the most important components of the Garment Workers Justice Campaign was maintaining support in the Asian community. AIWA stayed connected with the community by publishing updates and activities in all the local newspapers, uncovering the sweatshop conditions in which the women in their own communities are suffering (Delgado, 1996).
Campus Connections: Another outreach strategy was to gain support and alliance with college students from all over the country. Starting with University of California, Berkeley, the closest campus in proximity to the campaign, students helped mobilize several other campuses. AIWA was able to outreach to at least 30 campuses over the summer of 1993. In conjunction with AIWA, students coordinated a national day of action against Jessica McClintock (Delgado, 1996).
To see the email that was distributed to various colleges, please visit the following link: http://csf.colorado.edu/femisa/1995/msg00088.html.
After three years of hard campaigning, in March of 1996, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates signed an historic agreement, mediated by the Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, with Jessica McClintock, Inc. to endorse worker protection. Below is the list of agreements by which Jessica McClintock must abide:
Not only did the Garment Workers Justice Campaign improve the living and working conditions for Asian immigrant women and empower hundreds of young Asian Pacific American women across the country, but the Campaign also set a vital precedent for labor organizing across the board (Shah). AIWA’s campaign spurred numerous local investigations of the Bay Area sweatshops.
310 Eight Street #301 (near Harrison)
Oakland, CA 94607
Voice: (510) 268-0192
Fax: (510) 268-0194
Anner, John. “Sweatshop Workers Organize and Win.” The Progressive, June 1996, p15.
Cheng, Michelle. Is Your Prom Dress Worth What You Paid? http://www.thelowell.org/~lowell/may3-96/page19/promdress.html. 7 May 1996.
Chin, Steven A. “Unpaid Seamstresses Look to S.F. Designer.” SanFrancisco Examiner 5 October 1992, sec A-1, 12.
Delgado, Gary. "How the Empress Gets Her Clothes: Asian Immigrant Women Fight Fashion Designer Jessica McClintock." In Beyond Identity Politics: Emerging Social Justice Movements in Communities of Colour, ed. John Anner. Boston: South End Press, 1996, pp. 81-94.
ETA Press Release: Secretary Reich Announces Signed Agreement Between Jessica McClintock, Inc. And Asian Immigrant Women Advocates. http://www.dol.gov/dol/opa/public/media/press/eta/eta96108.htm. 21 March 1996.
Kono, Stacy. Telephone Interview. 22 November 2000.
Louie, Miriam Ching. “Immigrant Asian Women in Bay Area Garment Sweat Shops: ‘After Sewing, Laundry, Cleaning, and Cooking, I Have No Breath Left to Sing’”. AmerAsia Journal. 18.1 (1992): pp. 1-26.
Shah, Sonia. Slaying the Dragon Lady: Toward an Asian American Feminism. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/grhf/WoC/feminisms/shah.html. 1997.
Sreenivasan, Jyotsna. Sweatshops: Female Slavery in the U.S. http://www.feminist.org/research/73_sweat.htm. Fall 1995.
U.S. Census Bureau. State and County QuickFacts. http://quickfacts.census.gov/cgi-bin/county?cnty=06075. 1990.
U.S. Census Bureau. TIGER: Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing system. http://www.census.gov/geo/www/tiger/index.html. 1998.
Zia, Helen. “Made In the U.S.A.” MS, January 1996, Vol. 8, Issue 4, pp. 66-74.