Working 36 hours straight.
No overtime pay.
No functioning bathrooms; no running water – not even clean water to drink.
A work environment infested with roaches and rodents.
Exits blocked by piles of garments, fabric, and debris. And locked at night so there was no escape in case of emergency.
This could be an historic list of working conditions in garment factories back east during the 19th century, but it’s not. These were the conditions in a local Los Angeles factory in 2009. Conditions were so bad that workers would frequently faint on the factory floor and were expected to immediately return to their machines when they awoke. And the wages were so low that, despite working 72 hours per week, workers still found themselves living below the poverty level.
The situation came to the attention of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, which brought a civil action to challenge the sweatshop conditions. Six courageous employees came forward, willing to act as witnesses in the case, knowing that they put themselves in harm’s way by doing so. As it turned out, their fears were well founded.
When the owners of the factory learned the identities of the witnesses, they filed a retaliatory lawsuit against them, seeking millions of dollars in damages for defamation and related torts. The employers also engaged in a blacklisting campaign to prevent them from finding work in other garment factories in the area.
But Bet Tzedek was there to protect the workers’ rights and interests by providing direct legal representation and guidance. All without charge. Knowing that we were there for them, the witnesses refused to be intimidated.
The City Attorney amended its complaint to allege retaliation, and Bet Tzedek filed a motion to strike the retaliatory lawsuit under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Policy) statute. Before the hearing on Bet Tzedek’s motion, the factory dismissed its complaint against the workers and agreed to a settlement with the individual witnesses.
The factory then agreed to a stipulated judgment in the City’s action, including payment of back wages to the entire workforce and ongoing injunctive relief. The factory also agreed to pay for an independent monitor – the Workers’ Rights Consortium – with the authority to enter the factory without notice and conduct inspections of all records and employment practices to ensure compliance with the judgment.
Protecting worker’s rights is only a part of the vital work that Bet Tzedek does on behalf of the low-income, disenfranchised members of our community.
Join us in ensuring Justice for All. Click here to visit our GIVE page now.