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Zocalo Asks About the Future of the Garment Industry

By Samantha Page
Published: Wednesday, September 24, 2008, at 08:52AM
Zocalo Reception at the Los Angeles Theater Center Samantha Page [Flickr]

Zocalo Reception at the New LATC

Zocalo, a "free, eclectic and roving forum," hosted a panel on the state and future of the local garment industry at the New LATC on Tuesday night.

The panelists, representing different sides of the garment industry equation, agreed the future of the industry was limited, at best, and is deeply troubled both by labor violations and by globalization.

There are approximately 50,000 garment workers in Downtown, and tens of thousands of related jobs, but panelist T.A. Frank, a New America Foundation fellow and editor at The Washington Monthly, characterized it as "an industry that is frankly on its way out."

Miguel Morales, an organizer with the Garment Worker Center, a Downtown-based advocacy group, said that some workers receive as little as $4 an hour and that the majority of work is done in substandard conditions.

"The cheap products we have available to us come at a very high price," Morales said.

Though they agreed on the fundamental economic issue facing the industry, panelists did not agree whether consumer education would be able to reverse the situation.

In any case, government regulators are unable, or unwilling, to step in. "We find we have very little, very limited support from the state," Morales said, although he did acknowledge that California Department of Labor's staff is "very small."

Garment Contractors Association Executive Director Joe Rodriguez attributed the decline of the industry to deregulation and trade agreements, which have resulted in only three percent of the clothing Americans wear being made in America, down from 95 percent at the end of WWII.

During the Q and A, an audience member brought up American Apparel. The company employs approximately 5,000 workers at its Downtown manufacturing facility, and has grown rapidly despite a focus on paying livable wages. Jerry Sullivan, editor and publisher of the Los Angeles Garment and Citizen, cautioned the audience about trying to apply the American Apparel model to the entire industry. Yes, they have been successful, but he chalked up their success more to a unique fashion sense rather than an ability to somehow supersede the problems of the day.

Sullivan moderated the panel, entitled "How Dangerous is the Garment Industry?" which was followed by a reception in the New LATC's beautiful lobby.

Despite what Sullivan characterized as a "difficult subject," the event was well-received and attended.

Zocalo's events are free and open to the public.

For information on upcoming events, visit the Zocalo website. Audio from Tuesday's forum will soon be available online.

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