California’s governor said hospitals are so strapped for face masks they are turning to Los Angeles seamstresses — an industry notorious for poor labour conditions

Garment workers sew apparel on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. Ric Francis/AP
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom says a critical shortage of masks has some hospitals resorting to seamstresses in Los Angeles’ garment district.
  • The LA garment industry is notorious for poor labour conditions and its reliance on a largely undocumented workforce.
  • “We’re seeing how much we rely on a migrant workforce and immigrant workers,” Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Centre, told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Some hospitals are so desperate for basic equipment in the face of the novel coronavirus outbreak that some are purchasing run-of-the-mill swim goggles to protect their staff. And some are turning to Los Angeles’ garment industry located downtown to manufacture face masks.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom made that revelation in a Wednesday night broadcast on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Having met with hospital administrators the night before, Newsom said many are running low on supplies and turning to hardware stores for gloves and other quasi-medical items.

“We are also seeing hospitals – and I just want to be candid with people – that are going down, for example, to the LA garment district and requesting seamstresses to start making masks,” Newsom said, adding that he was hopeful FEMA would soon be able to supply them instead.

“We clearly have to meet this moment,” the governor remarked, “where we are not asking seamstresses in the garment district to make masks.”

The garment industry is largely made up of undocumented laborers and is notorious for poor working conditions. Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Centre in Los Angeles, said it is revealing that, in a time of need, it is a largely undocumented population filling the gap.

“We’re seeing how much we rely on a migrant workforce and immigrant workers in retail, in our food supply chain, in our medical supply chain – it’s pretty incredible,” Nuncio told Business Insider.

Around 45,000 people are employed in Los Angeles’ garment sector and, according to Verité, a nonprofit that monitors labour violations in global supply chains, that workforce is “principally female migrants.” It is an industry notorious for exploitation, with workers often paid by the garment, resulting in sub-legal wages, and subject to unsafe work conditions.

A 2015 survey by the UCLA Labour Centre found that 60% of laborers reported being forced to sew in factories with “poor ventilation that rendered it difficult to work, and even to breath.”

The conditions have not improved since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.

“What we’re learning is that where factories are open – and for the most part they’re open – most managers and factory owners are not implementing any social-distancing practices,” Nuncio said. “Workers reported bathrooms without soap, some without water, no hand sanitizer – so they’re at risk.”

If there is an upside to the current crisis, Nuncio said, it may be that conditions long tolerated, and relied on by some major fashion brands, could receive greater attention in this time of need, with more gratitude for those whose sweat could well save lives.

“As an organiser,” Nuncio said, “you look to moments like this to really highlight particularly vulnerable communities, and it really highlights where the gaps have been.”