Feds targeting clothing company bad immigration reform strategy
October 14, 2009
American Apparel, the group that makes sweatshop-free clothing, has been making news for a couple of very different reasons lately.
The Los Angeles-based clothing manufacturer and retailer has been taking a flea market on the road to college campuses since September. Mobs of bargain hunters have come out to previously visited cities, creating massive hours-long lines and some mild mayhem.
While mobs of people are looking for deals at the flea market, many of American Apparel’s factory workers who make the garments being sold are losing their jobs.
An immigration crackdown is forcing American Apparel to fire 1,800 workers, most of whom are Latino immigrants.
Rather than the mass chaos of raids and deportations that followed immigration investigations during George W. Bush’s administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement instead compelled American Apparel to either fire people whose papers were found to be invalid or face civil penalties.
While the action being taken is legal, it is not just. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has called the firings “devastating.”
The government has put nearly 2,000 workers out of jobs at a time when unemployment is at its highest. It is hard to say what will become of these newly unemployed people, but many of their possibilities are grim: sweatshops, crime and homelessness abound on their horizons.
This is forcing people back into the shadows, when they should be brought into the light by creating paths to citizenship.
American Apparel has supported immigration reform since 2003; running ads, putting up billboards and selling T-shirts that read “Legalize L.A.: Immigration Reform Now,” with 100 percent of its net proceeds from the shirts going to Los Angeles-based immigrant rights groups.
American Apparel was not charged with knowingly hiring illegal labor and does not appear to have sought to exploit illegal immigrants. The company pays its workers $10 to $12 an hour, well above minimum wage, and provides health benefits and guaranteed year-round employment. This is an employer that manufactures goods in America, rather than choosing to opt for cheap labor in other countries.
The company’s founder and chief executive, Dov Charney, wrote on the company’s blog, “Because of a broken system, we were forced to let go of many factory workers — people who have been part of our family for nearly 10 years — and the country seems further from addressing this issue than ever.”
American Apparel corporate executives told The New York Times that many workers had learned skills that allowed the company to make 800,000 garments a week in Los Angeles, while keeping prices competitive with imports. Many of those workers were fired.
Forcing companies to fire workers who have been paying taxes — and who have become experienced in their craft after years of work — will cause more harm than good.
This is not the way to address immigration reform.
Leo Portugal is a senior journalism major and a columnist for the Daily 49er.