New Film Casts Doubt on 'Made in USA' Label A new film about the L.A. garment district documents the struggles of immigrants who work long hours in poor conditions for sub-minimum wages. Made in L.A. follows three female workers as they fight for labor law protection.
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New Film Casts Doubt on 'Made in USA' Label

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Made in USA is a label that's meant to inspire trust in American manufacturing. But in Los Angeles, inside the tall, ubiquitous buildings of downtown, there's a world reminiscent of 19th century industrial factories.

Filmmaker Almudena Carracedo shadowed three garment workers who waged a three-year battle for workers' rights. Three seemingly powerless immigrants who eventually forced a major clothing retailer, Forever21, to negotiate after months of protests and boycotts.

(Soundbite of film "Made in USA")

Unidentified Woman: There's 19 workers here who have been owed money from six different factories. They weren't paid minimum wage. They didn't get paid overtime.

(Soundbite of noise)

Unidentified Woman: And the company has denied and refused responsibility.

CONAN: One of the organizers at a protest against Forever21. The film, "Made in LA" is part of the PBS series "POV." It debuted last night. In some places, it airs elsewhere over the next couple of weeks. If you work in the garment industry, if you have questions about how your clothes are made and who makes them. 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Or you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Almudena Carracedo is the director and producer of "Made in LA." She joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks very much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. ALMUDENA CARRACEDO (Director, Producer, Cinematographer, and Co-editor of "Made in LA"): Thank you. It's my pleasure.

CONAN: And I wonder what was it like for you the first time you walked into, what I guess could only be described as a sweatshop?

Ms. CARRACEDO: Well, definitely, the conditions are appalling. Some of the conditions that the workers were describing mainly were not getting paid a minimum wage, not getting paid overtime and some very unhealthy conditions of rats, roaches, not being allowed to go to the bathroom, not being allowed to drink water so they don't go to the bathroom so that they don't stop working. So these are conditions that were very typical and you know, when the workers started coming in and got together for this campaign and lawsuit against Forever21.

CONAN: And there's a moment toward the end of your movie, one of the women you profiled becomes an organizer, in fact, and visits New York and reads about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the problems of immigrants and other generation of immigrants in another coast of the United States and says this is the same thing.

Ms. CARRACEDO: Yeah. Definitely, that's a very powerful moment. As part of this campaign, they actually - the boycott went national and they visited the (unintelligible) immigration. And she was looking at all these pictures and she was looking at the machines and she was - it was like a complete realization for her that she was just part of the new wave of immigration to this country and also part of the new wave of garment workers who are also immigrants in this country, so, yeah, you're right.

CONAN: The issue of immigration, of course, colors this entire conversation. The women who you profile, I gather, all of them at the time of filming had green cards.

Ms. CARRACEDO: Yes. They were all residents. But a lot of the people in the campaign did not. And definitely, you know, one of the things that we do try to do with the film is just portray the conditions that these workers have and to bring the point that really no matter what your immigration status is, you still have the right to minimum wage and the right to overtime. So it is definitely a much bigger issue. But you're right. One of the reasons why these workers are really not given this protection de facto it's because they are very vulnerable so they're very scared of actually complaining or reporting violations of the factories.

CONAN: One of the women you profiled, in fact, was - came to this country illegally and was unable to see her children for what, 18 years?

Ms. CARRACEDO: Yes, yes. She had to come when she was 22. She had three children and she was single mother. The country was at war, so her only option was really to come here to be able to feed them, to provide for them for the future. So definitely what we try to do with the film is to put a human face about all these issues in this discussion that we understand is very complex. And a lot of people are very angry around these issues, but we really try to bring the human face, the human stories behind all of these numbers and this sort of debate in this politics.

CONAN: We're talking with Almudena Carracedo who's director, co-producer and cinematographer and co-editor of "Made in LA," a documentary about sweatshops and L.A.'s garment district. You can see it on public television. Well, maybe you saw it last night. It's also playing around the country at different times. Check your local listings. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And it's companies like Forever21, which was the focus of the organization and the campaign in your film. They initially said, look, it's not our responsibility. We hire contractors and subcontractors. You know, they're just working the contract. We're not responsible for the conditions of these workers.

Ms. CARRACEDO: Yeah, exactly that. That was Forever 21's position, and I must point out that we did invite them to speak in the film and they declined, but we did try to incorporate their perspective through their participation in the media, for example. So their position was that they are not the legal employers of these workers and they are completely right. Legally, the employers of these workers are the factory owners.

So what happens in the garment industry is that there's a subcontracting chain. So the retailers subcontract with the manufacturers who are the designers, for example, right and the ones who then subcontract with the factories, and those are actually the legal owners of the workers. So basically what happens is that by the time it gets down to the bottom of the chain, basically, there's very little money left to actually pay the workers. And the main claim of the workers in this lawsuit - it was also a lawsuit and a boycott - was that the retailer, in this case Forever21, has the power to set the prices so that when that price goes down the line, the workers are paid per law, they're actually paid minimum wage.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Tim(ph) in San Francisco. If you think you're getting legitimate clothes when you buy off the rack at the expensive department stores, think again. I'm in San Francisco and I've seen the sweatshops that fancy department stores - he names them. I can't do that because we don't know these charges to be true. But fancy department stores used for women's clothing, how can we condemn others for doing what the big boys are doing themselves?

And your workers - you follow, they have jobs in Los Angeles, very difficult jobs under horrible circumstances, yet there are others making similar kinds of circumstances…

Ms. CARRACEDO: Yes.

CONAN: …in China, where they would be thrilled to be working under the conditions in Los Angeles.

Ms. CARRACEDO: Well, definitely, the point is taken that it's not just retailers like Forever21 that went under this campaign at night. We cannot speak for Forever21 what they're doing right now. But definitely, one of the most important things about the film though is that it portrays the conditions of workers here, right here in our own very backyard and what things are happening here. Very often, we think of other countries or we think about other times where this was happening, but this is happening right now here in L.A.

And I must point out that not all the industry in L.A. really has these conditions. There's a big part of industry that is trying to do the right thing, but we were talking about very small operations that don't receive a lot of money for their contracts. Excuse me. And then, they definitely don't have enough money to pay the workers, so it's not the whole industry but a very big part of industry unfortunately has this kind of conditions for workers.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. And this is Daniel(ph), Daniel with us from Denver.

DANIEL (Caller): Hi. My question is we hear a lot about Americans not wanting these jobs such as sweatshop labor. But do you feel that it's because they actually don't want them or because in America, we see them as degrading work? And I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Right. Daniel, thanks very much for the call.

Ms. CARRACEDO: Definitely, we have seen not just in the garment industry but in other industries, a lot of jobs that Americans do not want to take anymore because it's a very low pay. It's minimum wage and as we can see very often it's much less than minimum wage, very hard conditions, very difficult conditions. We're talking about agriculture. We're talking about janitors…

CONAN: Landscapers.

Ms. CARRACEDO: …landscaping, janitors, so these are jobs that have, in the last years, really become immigrant jobs.

CONAN: And the garment industry, though, this was - the International Ladies Garment Workers Union tried to organize this business a long time ago.

Ms. CARRACEDO: Yes, yes. So it's just as we were pointing out, when Lupe went to New York and we were looking at all these protests and all these ladies protesting at the beginning of the century, it's unfortunate that these conditions are still happening and are so reminiscent of what happened at the beginning of the century with all these unions, you know?

CONAN: Well, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Ms. CARRACEDO: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Almudena Carracedo is director and co-producer of "Made in LA." And she's been talking to us from our studios in Culver City, California. Again the documentary airs as part of the PBS television series "POV."

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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