BTC: How did you become a garment worker?
Maria: I came here about 30 years ago. I started working in sewing without knowing how to do anything. I didn’t know anything about sewing. A lady began to teach me, to mentor me. She showed me how to remove threads from clothes, to fold them and things like that. And over time she taught me how to work the machines. Back then, a person got paid by the piece, not by the hour. You got paid by how much you could produce. At that time, you could earn a good living, because sewing was well-paid work.
BTC: Have you ever been fired or laid off without cause? If so, how did you respond?
Maria: Yes. I hadn’t been with them for long. It’s not that they didn’t treat me well. I didn’t like the way they laid me off. It was the way they handled it. They paid me around 4 o’clock and called me over and told me I was fired. I told them, “You can’t fire me just like that, where you tell me today and I don’t come in tomorrow. I can’t do that. You need to give me at least a week’s notice to look for work. I also have rights.” So, they agreed to give me more time. And they said they had to fire others as well, not just me. I don’t know if that was true, but they did give me a week so that I could look for another job. I knew my rights because I’m a member of the Los Angeles Garment Workers Center. I had learned about my rights at our meetings. The company was not doing things the right way. They made a lot of mistakes. I noticed a few things. For example, there are companies where you work and you have your timecard, but if you’re asked to work overtime, they give you a separate timecard that you keep at your workstation. That way, if inspectors come to have a look, they won’t know that you worked overtime and that they paid you $15 an hour instead of paying you overtime wages, $22 per hour. Where I work now, the boss has been very clear. They can’t pay us overtime, but they will give us 40 hours a week.
BTC: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work life or working conditions? Do you commute, or miss out on anything important due to your working conditions?
Maria: My workplace is far away, but I get a ride in the morning and in the afternoon I get a ride with a friend and I give her money for gas. I feel good. I’m doing well and don’t feel I’m missing out on anything. If I had to find another way to get to work, I’d take the bus and end up paying more.
BTC: Tell us about your recent victory passing the Garment Worker Protection Act, SB 62, which won 2 important changes: 1) from being paid by the garment piece to being paid by the hour; and 2) removal of loopholes allowing companies to avoid having to pay workers. Can you talk a bit about the struggle leading up to this win, and what it took?
Maria: I got involved when the pandemic started, because of a friend who told me that she was a member at the center. So, at the start of the pandemic, I wasn’t working and she told me: Look, you can enter here and become a member right now. They are offering mutual aid survival kits that can help you while you’re not working. They call you and explain everything, how the process works and how to get more involved. They explain how you can help them when someone asks for help to increase wages and treat us better. So, I became a member, and they began to explain everything to me.
They helped us throughout the pandemic. We did phone campaigns to ask the Governor to acknowledge our service, to help him see and understand and to ask him to help us by passing the law that would pay us by the hour. In the meetings, they taught us how to use Zoom. Quite a few people met together during the Zoom meetings. We were looking at them, listening. They asked us for opinions. They explained everything to us: How the laws are going. if we were winning or if we lost. We should unite more, so that we can be stronger together, so that they can help us. They explained all of that to us. Before the pandemic, we used to go out to protest to voice our demands, with placards and banners, but now with the pandemic it is not possible, now we do it by phone. That’s how I participate.
BTC: Do you consider yourself an activist?
Maria: Yes. Yes, because it’s to improve our situation. I don’t know how, but the center pays us lost wages for the day when we miss work for campaigns. It’s not a membership requirement. First they ask us who can and who can’t. Like right now they asked me: Can you Maria? If I can [do this interview],. we hope that at least those who follow us might have a better future.
BTC: Why is it important for garment workers to continue to organize and fight back against the bosses? Do you keep fighting?
Maria: I’d like to keep fighting for this reason: Not all companies are paying the minimum wage or treating their workers well. There are a lot of companies still that have not complied with the new regulations. There are some areas outside the city that only pay $14 per hour. We are going to fight for the same wage across the region, because otherwise the companies just move, and there are fewer garment factories here. So this is our next struggle.
And there are other factories where, as far as I know, if there are more than 20 people, they demand that they pay the minimum wage. But if they have 20, or less than 20, they don’t pay the minimum. There are a lot of companies that are small, they have 20 or 19 employees, and they do not pay the minimum. So that’s why I would like to continue fighting, to see if something can be done, as I mentioned earlier, for the future of people who are younger than us.
Many of us working in the industry are older, but there are many young people. The majority of young people, 20 to 22 years old, are from Central America. They are the hardest workers. They work, work, work. I see them working as if they were robots. They sit down to work and work. There are some employers who are very demanding. And that is why I would like to continue fighting for them, because I see them, and I say, it is not fair. How they work isn’t fair, how they sit at the machine and they work like robots. the workers used to put in their earbuds, and work, work. Right now the company doesn’t let us listen to headphones or answer cell phones, not anymore. They took that away from us. The workers stand up only at the exact moment that the bell rang to have lunch, and they go have lunch.
It saddens me to know that out of necessity these young people work like this. The necessity comes because they’re new here, they owe a lot of money back home, because of their journey. All of this affects them, and that is why they are in this situation.
For example, I’d stand up now and then, stand up, go to the bathroom, at least to stand for a bit, to stretch my legs, but not them. They work, work, work, work. They wouldn’t take a break until lunchtime. But I would tell them: Take a little break, go to the bathroom. Because it’s not right that they work like that.
BTC: What risks do you face as an organizer, and what have you learned from the struggle?
Maria: Risks–only if it became known in my company that I am an activist. Because no boss benefits from having an activist in their workplace.
I have learned that we have to fight — to continue fighting — to win benefits for ourselves, for the workers, and as I mentioned, for the future of the people who come after us. I will keep fighting for as long as I can, as an activist, for the people, for the young people who come from Central America, for the Mexicans who come here to struggle to get ahead. That’s what I want.
BTC: Do you feel connected to larger workers’ struggles here in the U.S. and abroad?
Maria: I wish we could have a farther reach, into other countries. So that laws be made for the farmworkers, because it is not just us garment workers who are struggling. There is a big struggle in the agricultural industry. I hope in the future I get to see all those changes. I would love to see that. It would bring us such great joy, for everyone who is fighting in the struggle.
I hope the readers won’t ignore everything we talked about today, that they take into account the suffering of even a single person, of all of the undocumented people who come to this country. We pay taxes, and we need to have rights, too. I think that we should unite, we should help each other, give each other a hand, just as the Center gives us garment workers a hand. I hope that over time we can also give help to others who are in need, such as those in the fields, and the cooks, restaurant workers and dishwashers. That is for me what I would like readers not to ignore.