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As one of the first protection of labor laws, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 addressed sweatshops, child labor standards, minimum wage, and maximum hours. This bill was considered unconstitutional, but gave power to the people who would still be making ten times less than that of the executives against the revolutionary legislation. After compromises and adjustments, the FLSA would still be a major reform for its time.

With no prior Congressional legislation directed solely at the fashion and clothing industry, workers have continued to be subject to low piece-rate wages and unsafe working conditions for far too long. This wage can be as little as three to six cents per garment produced. To combat this exploitative practice, on May 12, 2022, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the FABRIC Act, Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change Act, in the Senate as S. 4213. FABRIC is a bill to amend the FLSA of 1938 to prohibit employers from paying employees in the garment industry by piece rate, to require manufacturers and contractors in the garment industry to register with the Department of Labor, and for other purposes.

The FABRIC Act is designed to

  • Authorize the federal minimum wage for garment worker employees.
  • Initiate a 30% tax credit for garment and clothing businesses that relocate production back to the U.S.
  • Require both garment manufacturers and contractors alike to register with the Labor Department.
  • Create a new Undersecretary of the Garment Industry position within the Labor Department.
  • Allow fines of up to $50 million for any violations.

Those in support of Senator Gillibrand’s proposed bill argue that the FABRIC Act will not only create equality and protection for the workers across the fashion and clothing industry, but it will also generate community development, environmental sustainability, economic prosperity, and gender equity as a result of the transparency and multilateral accountability on behalf of those at the highest level of the supply chain.

In conjunction with equality, equity, and justice for workers, Senator Gillibrand has claimed that this will initiate historic investments in domestic manufacturing. In order to reconstruct American production, the bill suggests a $40 million Domestic Garment Manufacturing Support Program to aid in production costs, including the price of equipment, safety augmentation and workforce training and development. Implemented correctly, clothing will be both made and purchased within the U.S.

brands bringing production back into the U.S., often, the yarn, fabric, and other materials necessary to produce garments are abroad and brands would be required to pay high tariffs on these components. Comparably, opponents have specifically pointed to the Bureau of Prisons’ Federal Prison Industries program, in which prisoners are paid less than a dollar an hour to create garments. In response to the introduction of the bill, the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) explains,   The FABRIC Act will have to acknowledge this program and recommend further action to promote the reshoring of manufacturers.

While the FABRIC Act addresses many important issues, those critiquing Senator Gillibrand’s proposed bill reason that it must be refined in order to be successful. For example, the AAFA contends that organizing joint liability is essential to bringing attention to which brands are specifically responsible for the exploitation of employees.

By amending the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, workers at the frontlines of the fashion and clothing industry will be compensated fairly for their time and labor, in contrast to per-piece pay, and will hold brands accountable for workplace violations and labor malpractice, while meeting consumer demands for sustainable clothing. Simultaneously, it can be expected that the incentive to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. will not only bring economic prosperity to the country but also advancements in sustainable development. There is no better time than the present to enact laws that foster dignity and create equitable opportunity for the American people.

Sarah Nantel – TWG Policy and Strategy Associate