Fashion Nova’s Factories Employ Undocumented Immigrants To Make Their Clothes For Illegally Low Wages
Thanks to high street and low-cost brands like Fashion Nova, the days of $200 jeans are over. The coveted e-comm site can turn around a whole collection in as little as “two weeks” thanks to their manufacturers based in Los Angeles —just a short drive away from the company’s HQ. But as it turns out, the federal Labor Department found that many Fashion Nova garments are stitched together by a work force in the United States that is paid illegally low wages.
We’re living in the times of ‘fast fashion’.
In the era of Instagram, when whatever you see on your screen you can instantly purchase with a few taps of your finger, online retailers like Fashion Nova, have perfected the ‘fast fashion’ model.
In order to ‘mass sell’, retailers have to mass produce.
Online retailers lean on celebrities, influencers and countless avid selfie-takers to post about the brand on social media and incite everyone around them to buy. This model is built to satisfy an online client-base, so the retailers mass produce cheap clothes that look expensive to keep up with demand.
We buy clothes, wear them ‘for the Gram’ and never think of them again.
“They need to buy a lot of different styles and probably only wear them a couple times so their Instagram feeds can stay fresh,” Richard Saghian, Fashion Nova’s founder, said in an interview last year. And to enable that habit, Fashion Nova produces super cheap options constantly —but this is where it starts getting ugly.
If you think of it, in order to get ridiculously cheap clothes, the manufacturing process has to be cheap too —so the workers are getting paid illegally low wages.
Los Angeles is packed with factories that produce clothing and pay workers —off the books— as little as possible. Many of the people who work at these places are undocumented, and don’t see the possibility to challenge their bosses.
There are basically ‘sweatshops’ in L.A.
“It has all the advantages of a sweatshop system,” said David Weil, who led the United States Labor Department’s wage and hour division from 2014 to 2017. Every year, the department investigates these issues at sewing factories in Los Angeles. Showing up unannounced to check payroll data, interview employees and question the owners —but it’s easy to keep things hidden.
The factories that make Fashion Nova’s clothes, owe millions to workers.
Research conducted between 2016 and this year, showed that much of Fashion Nova’s clothing production was being made in factories that owed wages to hundreds of workers —$3.8 million to be exact. The factories are hired by middlemen, to produce garments for fashion brands, and they pay their seamstresses and sewers as little as $2.77 an hour —according to The New York Times.
Factories producing clothes for Fashion Nova have been caught committing these violations repeatedly.
After federal officials found repeated violations at factories making Fashion Nova clothes, they met with company representatives. “We have already had a highly productive and positive meeting with the Department of Labor in which we discussed our ongoing commitment to ensuring that all workers involved with the Fashion Nova brand are appropriately compensated for the work they do,” Erica Meierhans, Fashion Nova’s general counsel, said in a statement to The New York Times. “Any suggestion that Fashion Nova is responsible for underpaying anyone working on our brand is categorically false.”
Fashion Nova’s signature bodycon dresses and curvy jeans are often made by people who work in ramshackle buildings in less than acceptable conditions.
The New York Times just published an investigation and thorough interview with employees of these warehouse factories, like Mercedes Cortes. Mrs. Cortes, sewed Fashion Nova clothes for months at Coco Love, a factory near Fashion Nova’s headquarter offices in Vernon, California. “There were cockroaches. There were rats,” she said. “The conditions weren’t good,” she said to the Times.
She worked everyday of the week—but instead of being paid for her time, she was paid depending on how quickly she worked.
Mercedes’ pay varied depending on how quickly she moved her fingers. Ms. Cortes was paid for each piece of a shirt, she could sew together (approximately 4 cents to sew on each sleeve, 5 cents per side seams, and 8 cents for the seam on a neckline), she was making $270 dollars a week —which is equivalent to $4.66 per hour. Note that the minimum wage in California, as of January 2019, is $12 per hour for employers with 26 or more employees.
In 2016, Ms. Cortes left Coco Love and later reached a settlement with the company for $5,000 in back wages.
She continued to work in factories sewing Fashion Nova clothes, noticing the $12 price tags on the tops she had stitched together for cents. “The clothes are very expensive for what they pay us,” Ms. Cortes said.
As consumers, we like to believe that this is what happens in developing countries like Bangladesh or Vietnam where labor isn’t regulated—but it’s true and happening in our very own country.
These factories are still producing clothes for major American retailers. Under federal law, brands cannot be penalized for wage theft in factories if they can credibly claim that they did not know their clothes were made by workers paid illegally low wages. The Labor Department has collected millions in back wages and penalties from Los Angeles garment businesses in recent years, but has not fined a retailer.
Fashion Nova’s labels were the ones most frequently found by federal investigators.
This year, as federal authorities looked into garment factories that pay ridiculously low wages, Fashion Nova’s labels were the ones that kept showing up. In September, three officials of the department met with Fashion Nova’s lawyers to inform them that after 4 years, the brand’s clothes had been found in 50 investigations of factories paying illegally low wages —or failing to pay overtime altogether.
The company took “immediate action” and updated its brand’s agreement with vendors.
Now, if Fashion Nova finds out that a factory has been charged with violating laws “governing the wages and hours of its employees, child labor, forced labor or unsafe working conditions,” the brand will put the middleman who hired that factory on a six-month “probation,” it said in a statement. While Fashion Nova has taken steps to address the Labor Department’s findings, the brand noted that it “is not responsible for how these vendors handle their payrolls.”
In 2013, Mr Saghian, Fashion Nova’s founder, opened an Instagram account and began adding photos of his products.
Gradually, Fashion Nova amassed millions of followers, mentions and endorsements from celebrities and influencers. Cardi B, dropped her first collection with the brand on Instagram, through a video. “I wanted to do something that is like, ‘Wow, what is that? Is that Chanel? Is that YSL? Is that Gucci?’ No,” she said, adding an expletive, “it’s Fashion Nova.”
There were more searches for Fashion Nova last year than for Versace or Gucci, according to Google’s year in search data.
It has 17 million followers on Instagram, and at any given moment there are enough people browsing clothes on its website to fill a basketball arena, Mr. Saghian said.
To keep all these people interested, Fashion Nova produces a filthy amount of styles at a ridiculously fast pace.
More than a thousand new styles are made every week, thanks in part to an army of local suppliers that can respond instantly to the brand’s requests. “If there was a design concept that came to mind Sunday night, on a Monday afternoon I would have a sample,” Mr. Sarghian said.
Any investigation will find problems in these factories. But finding problems is only one important and positive step.
One of the most critical steps we can take is to open these industries up to greater public (and market) scrutiny and accountability. We need to pull back the veil of secrecy these factories have hidden behind for so many years. And we need to create systems where workers and communities can speak in their own voices through their own independent organizations, so that we can hear directly from workers and communities impacted by our consumption.
As consumers, we can help to put pressure on our favorite brands to make sure they are actively supporting initiatives that support workers and their conditions.