Author: Margie Camarda and Jacob Goldstein
In recent years, few clothing companies have garnered more press—both positive and negative—than American Apparel. Some labor activists have applauded the company for making its clothing entirely in Los Angeles and providing its workers with comprehensive benefits. Unionists, however, have decried the company, labeling it a sweatshop in disguise. Feminists have blasted the company for its female-centered, hyper-sexual advertising campaign. Then there is Dov Charney, the company’s controversial founder and CEO. Described by The Economist as “. . . a brilliant businessman, an amateur pornographer, a Jewish hustler and a man with a social mission,” he has faced three sexual harassment cases in the last several years. (Two were settled out of court and one is still pending).
What is undeniable, however, is that consumers have embraced American Apparel. Powered by semi-affordable prices and an ultra-hip, minimalist design aesthetic, the company has expanded exponentially over the last several years, and now is the largest clothing manufacturer in the United States. Yet, despite its phenomenal success, the company has been unable to shake the controversy surrounding its labor practices. Earlier this month, the 11th Los Angeles-area American Apparel opened in Old Town Pasadena, revitalizing the on-campus debate over the company. Though the American Apparel factory sits minutes away in downtown Los Angeles, a cloud of mystery surrounds its labor practices; depending on who you talk to, perceptions of the company range from “American sweatshop” to “savior of the garment industry” to somewhere in between. What is the real deal on American Apparel?
Charney founded American Apparel in 1997. Born in Montreal, Canada, Charney grew up with an infatuation for American-made clothing, and American Apparel is the manifestation of this life-long obsession. From its inception, all American Apparel garments have been produced in the company’s vertically integrated manufacturing plant in downtown Los Angeles. There is no outsourcing during any part of the manufacturing process; from the first cut to the last stitch, all the sewing is done by local workers. After developing a small following, Charney opened the first American Apparel retail outlet in 2003. Sales exploded from there-in one of the fastest expansions in retail history, the company opened 105 stores in two years. Today, American Apparel has over 140 stores in 11 countries. Known for their provocative advertising, slim-fitting, solid color t-shirts and risqué, spandex-heavy women’s line, the company currently has 4,500 employees and produces around one million t-shirts per week.
Equally ground-breaking is Charney’s treatment of his employees. Garment production is a huge industry in Los Angeles, employing tens of thousands of people. According to Amie Williams’ 2006 documentary No Sweat, the majority of these workers are undocumented Latina and Asian females, most of whom do not speak English and are unaware of their rights. Unlike any other major garment manufacturer in Los Angeles, however, American Apparel offers its employees a comprehensive insurance and medical benefits package for only eight dollars per month. The company also provides workers with free daily lunch, free English lessons, and free massages from an in-factory massage therapist. Additionally, Charney’s “performance-oriented” pay structure—though borderline exploitative (to be discussed later in this article)—results in employees earning around 12 dollars per hour, a rate far above California’s minimum wage. No Sweat revealed that workers in other LA garment factories often earn as little as $100 per month. Not surprisingly, these same workers are also denied health benefits, massages, and English lessons.
While these advancements in workers’ health and safety are to be lauded, labor-conscious shoppers should be wary yet; the company’s trademark “Vertically Integrated Manufacturing” process has come under considerable criticism. Workers’ pay varies by the hour and is determined on a piece rate. This means that the more an individual accomplishes on a given day, the more he or she is paid. Charney attributes the success of the company to this system, arguing that it creates a healthy level of competition that increases productivity. “We want our employees to know, every hour, how they perform. So we have a scoreboard,” a mid-level American Apparel employee said in No Sweat.
However, some have come to question whether this so-called healthy environment is more beneficial to the workers or to Charney’s bank account. Some employees claim they feel immense pressure to work at a lightning pace. “The supervisors humiliate the workers. They cannot even go to the bathroom because work accumulates,” said an anonymous American Apparel employee interviewed by Williams. Such a statement prompts important questions in the conscious consumer: Are employees working at a pace that increases the odds of on-the-job injury? And if they are unwilling to stop for just a few minutes to use the bathroom, how many of them are willing to take a break for a massage or an English lesson? Though American Apparel employees may not be working in the squalid conditions of what we traditionally call a sweatshop, has Charney really made enough progress?
Although some workers have spoken out against American Apparel policies, they have little hope of reforming the company, as Charney is staunchly anti-union. “I am not going to say hey associate, hey collaborate. . . . If you want to duke it out, I can close this fucking factory and roll off to China,” Charney said in No Sweat.
The film also features interviews from a union leader from UNITE!, a Los Angeles organization that assists with the unionization process in various industries. “[Charney] is becoming the God of the workers . . . He is making people love him, but it is not love, it is fear,” Christina Vasquez of UNITE! said. Many are suspicious of Charney’s fear of unions, especially given his claims that American Apparel has finally brought justice to the garment industry.
While the in-factory massage therapists exemplify Charney’s efforts to make the workplace comfortable, some workers, especially females, have complained of a discomfort in the workplace. Three hostile workplace suits have been filed against Charney. In a 2006 Dateline interview, a former male employee of American Apparel said, “It was understood that [Charney] was looking for sex almost constantly. . . . He was looking for sex from his employees.” An article in Business Week reported that in two of these sexual harassment suits, “the women accuse Charney of exposing himself to them. One claims he invited her to masturbate with him and that he ran business meetings at his Los Angeles home wearing close to nothing,” the article said. “Another says he asked her to hire young women with whom he could have sex, Asians preferred.” Two of these suits, which Charney called “completely peripheral and bogus” in Williams’s documentary, have been settled out of court, and the third is still pending.
Attention has also been called to the hyper-sexual atmosphere surrounding American Apparel. Charney’s office, for example, is decorated with photographs of topless women. In No Sweat, a UCLA law student representing Students Against Sweatshops expressed concern over the fact that Charney’s interior decorations are essentially limited to pornography. “This creates an awful power dynamic, a sexual power dynamic,” she said. The company is also notorious for its voyeuristic-style ads, which consist primarily of scantily clad young models in sexually suggestive positions. Charney and other company representatives readily acknowledge that this overt sexuality is an integral part of the brand’s image; in fact, the American Apparel website even features a link devoted to “Recent and Provocative Ads.” Sex may be the main selling point of their clothing, but it is still being hotly debated as to whether this amou
nts to a contemporary form of expression or a simple display of lewdness.
Oxy students have been doing some investigating of their own in order to decide if American Apparel merits their business. The Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) recently took a trip to the garment district where they visited the Garment Workers Center. Nina Pine (sophomore), one of the SLAC executive board members, helped organize the trip. “I would not call American Apparel a savior of the garment industry because of the many structural problems with the company,” Pine said. “The workers that have voiced an interest in unionizing at American Apparel have been silenced by intimidation, and out of fear of losing their jobs have chosen not to take that risk. This is disturbing because workers should have the right to unionize, because with a union they are guaranteed a voice. Thus, I wouldn’t call American Apparel a sweatshop, but it is clearly not a savior.”
Leah Fishbein (senior) is also unimpressed by American Apparel, especially its attempt to portray itself as an anti-corporate underground manufacturer in order to gain sales. “There are American Apparels all over the place—Beverly Hills, Westwood, etc. It’s not like they sold out—they were corporate from the get-go,” Fishbein said. “And their objectification of women gets me heated.”
In contrast, Isaac Cohen (first-year) has a more positive outlook on the company. “I think that mass-produced clothing like American Apparel is good because it makes clothing that is at least ethically aware easily accessible,” Cohen said.
Ultimately, American Apparel falls somewhere in the middle of the binary between right and wrong. Despite a multitude of problems, it would be incorrect to completely dismiss American Apparel; in many regards, the company actually represents a step in the right direction. For all its problems, it is undeniable that American Apparel is a higher paying and better place to work than any other clothing factory in LA (or most factories in the US, for that matter). While American Apparel employees are subjected to piece-work rates, workers in other garment factories need to work a full week to earn the same amount of money that American Apparel employees earn in one day.
Moreover, while the company’s labor practices do have their faults, they pale in comparison to the abusive working conditions of overseas sweatshops, where virtually every other major clothing company produces their garments. The fact that American Apparel clothing is produced in LA is also good for the consumer. Since the production facility is not overseas, Charney can call branch stores to see what items are selling well, adjust production accordingly, and have a new shipment of these hot products on store shelves within one week.
While many Oxy students have chosen to boycott American Apparel to protest the company’s labor practices, it is important to consider whether this decision actually helps the employees. After all, despite facing intense criticism, Charney has refused to modify either his personal behavior or the company’s labor practices. It is likely then that a boycott of American Apparel would only result in Charney laying off workers or reducing piece-rate pay. This creates a moral dilemma: if you say “no” to sweatshop labor by boycotting American Apparel, do you actually end up hurting the workers you are trying to protect?
In the end, perhaps Cohen puts it best. “I think that [American Apparel] could be doing much more than they are, but at least it is some sort of change,” he said. And it is undeniable that for all of its faults, American Apparel has brought change to the industry. But whether this change is enough—or if it is even a change for the better—will be up to the consumer.
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