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Made In L.A: The fight for workers' rights

Protesters holding signs

Made In L.A: The fight for workers' rights

A few weeks ago, to aid in our class-wide study of immigration, our English professor played a documentary video for us called Made in LA. I’m normally not much of a documentary fan, aside from the occasional true crime one, so frankly I was prepared to spend the next hour of class zoning out, counting ceiling tiles or something while trying to drown out the barrage of boring statistics being spit at me through the television. But as the film began, I quickly realized this was not the case.  

Made in LA tells the stories of three Latina immigrant women working in garment factories in Los Angeles. The documentary starts off by letting us get to know the three women a little bit and then takes off narrating their three-year-long journey in the fight for worker’s rights in the garment industry, particularly following a lawsuit filed against fast-fashion, Forever 21, whom the workers were still awaiting fair compensation for the labor from.  

I had never put much thought into where my clothing came from. I’ve been shopping at Forever 21 and similar retailers since middle school, and it had quickly become one of my favorite brands because you could get such a large variety of fashions for super cheap. What I never stopped to ponder, however, was how the retailer was able to sell items for so cheap and still stay in business, or in this case, still make huge profits. Made in LA was able to answer this question for me, and the reality of it all was eye-opening to me.  

The documentary begins by introducing us to Latina immigrant, Maria. Maria arrived in the U.S over 20 years ago hoping to make a substantial living and care for her family, but the only work she had ever been able to find was in sweatshops within the garment industry. She lives with her three children who she loves dearly and her controlling husband (who she, fortunately, leaves by the end of the film). When we meet Maria, she is always smiling and has this very kind, warm, vibrant demeanor about her, yet she’s telling us about the most horrid, unfair working conditions that currently were her life. In order to support her family, Maria worked 12-hour shifts daily at the sweatshop, only to bring her work home with her after and continue working at the sewing machine well into the night. The supervisors were often mean and condescending toward the workers and didn’t allow them lunch or bathroom breaks. She was paid well below minimum wage, making somewhere around $2-4 an hour, bringing in about $200 for the whole month. Yes, the whole month. My jaw dropped hearing that alone, as I thought about how even if her husband were bringing in about the same, that would bring them up to about $400 per month. However, the lowest rent in L.A is probably no less than $700-$800 a month, and then they still have to feed and clothe themselves and their children, and the many other expenses that come with raising a family. Maria was working more than full time, yet she and her family were still struggling to merely survive- something is definitely wrong with that. 

We then meet Lupe, who came to America alone at 17 years old fleeing an extremely toxic family environment, and Maura, who left her three children behind in El Salvador in order to be able to support them from here, both of whom worked in similar conditions in the garment industry as described above. The documentary follows the lives of the three women closely as it narrates the long process of their fight for workers’ rights. The three women worked with LA’s Garment Worker Center to organize peaceful protests throughout the city, trying to encourage consumers to boycott Forever 21 because of the awful treatment the laborers in charge who made their products face. When they tried to file a lawsuit to receive better treatment and compensation, the company replied that it was not their liability, but that of the companies they contracted out to for labor, resulting in nothing being done for them. During their protests, the ladies spoke to several Forever 21 employees, who couldn’t seem to care any less about what they were saying and also visited the neighborhood of the CEO of the company, who actually got into his car and drove away when they arrived. The women spoke about this issue to schools and other platforms, often shaking from their nerves, but still doing it. They frequently lost their voices from yelling during protests. These women put everything they had into their fight for workers’ rights and although the journey was a tedious three years long, and felt discouraging and even hopeless to them at times; eventually they did make progress. At the end of the film, Forever 21’s legal team and that of LA’s Garment Worker Center met and came to a compromise that ensured the migrant workers’ rights and ensured proper compensation for their labor.  

The documentary then checks in on Maria, who now only works 8 hour days, allowing her to spend time with her children and get rid of her controlling husband. Maura is finally able to contact her family, who are still in El Salvador but doing okay, and Lupe, now a respected employee of LA’s Garment Worker Center visits her home in Mexico City, reflecting on her progress. “The more I learn, the lonelier I feel. Ignorance somehow protects you.” (Made in LA, 2014), she says at the end of the film. I’d have to say that I agree.