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Unraveling Unfair Work Practices

Law professor Addie Rolnick reviews Made in L.A., the story of an early anti-sweatshop campaign targeting the retailer Forever 21. The film is part of the Public Interest Law Film Festival, Sept. 19-20.
Arts & Culture  |  Sep 11, 2013  |  By UNLV News Center
Maria Peneda and her daughter Araceli lead a protest of the conditions for garment workers.
Editor's Note: 

The Boyd School of Law's Public Interest Law Film Festival will be held Sept. 19-20 at the Barrick Museum. It is free and open to the public. This article, by law professor Addie Rolnick discusses the film Made in L.A., which will be screened at 1:45 p.m. Sept. 20. For a full schedule, visit the festival website.

Made in L.A. tells the story of a campaign by Los Angeles garment workers to fight unfair labor practices by retail giant Forever 21. The Garment Worker Center, an L.A.-based worker rights organization, focused on Forever 21 after organizers realized that almost all of the clothing sold in the company's stores was manufactured in L.A.'s garment district, sewn by women who made less than $3 an hour and lacked basic labor protections. They knew that changing policy at this specific company's would have an enormous impact on their members.

The film focuses on the lives of three workers, all undocumented Latina immigrants. Their stories, told without narration, reveal a delicate balancing of work and family and show the personal costs that this balancing has elicited from each of them.

Maura Colorado, who left her family behind in El Salvador, has not seen her children in 18 years. Maria Pineda describes working all day in dehumanizing conditions and then coming home to work all over again; her husband, who moved from Mexico with her, drinks daily and disappears every weekend, returning home only when he runs out of money. During the campaign, she struggles to reclaim her dignity and encounters pressure from her husband to stop participating. Lupe Hernandez, who came to L.A. as a teenager and spent 15 years working in the garment district, goes on after the campaign to become an organizer.

By following these women, the film shows the complex interplay of immigration, family and economic justice issues. It also highlights the different types of advocacy necessary to bring about change. The GWC first employed standard legal measures: filing a lawsuit against the company. The organization was represented by attorneys from the Asian Pacific American Law Center (APALC ). Because the women were employed by Forever 21's subcontractors, the company denied responsibility, saying it didn't know anything about the women's pay or work conditions, or even whether the women really did sew the garments sold in its stores. After a court dismissed the workers' claims, the company responded with a defamation lawsuit.

Throughout the legal proceedings, however, the GWC also pursued another strategy: a public awareness campaign. They organized a boycott and traveled across the country to speak to students, shoppers, store employees, and the public about the unfair working conditions and the company's response. After two years of litigation, an appeals court reversed the district court's decision, holding that workers have a right to sue retailers for labor law violations committed by subcontractors. Faced with a very real legal threat, the company finally agreed to settle with the workers. The settlement included a commitment to take steps to promote greater worker protection in the L.A. garment industry.

The GWC and APALC's efforts were pathbreaking, and the Forever 21 campaign became a precursor to the anti-sweatshop campaigns that pressured The Gap, Apple, and other major American companies to take responsibility for the labor conditions of workers employed by foreign contractors. Yet the film reminds us that the sweatshop phenomenon is not confined to foreign countries.

Directed by Almudena Carracedo and originally aired on PBS Point-Of-View series, the film won an Emmy in 2008 and was named one of 10 Documentaries on Champions of Social Justice by Bill Moyers in 2012.

Kimi Lee, former executive director and current board member of the GWC, will participate in a post-film discussion and will speak during the lunchtime panel.