When people think about sweatshops, they frequently regard them as a thing of the past, or believe that they only exist overseas. Less than a decade ago, however, employees worked for long hours in “sweatshop-like conditions” and were paid well below minimum wage. Several dozen women were locked into cramped rooms and only allowed a half-hour break for shifts lasting twelve hours or more, and some of them had to take work home with them and work late into the night after that. Made in LA/Hecho en Los Angeles looks back at how a group of workers organized and protested against one of the giants of fast fashion — and won.
The film unfolds over a three-year period, opening in mid-2001. We meet several Central and South American refugees who work together. Some of them have families, others left their children in their home country, and still others are childfree; many of the subjects are undocumented. They take work in the Los Angeles garment district at the suggestion of others in their community, or because they’re paid under the table and don’t need immigration documents. The filmmakers allow us to hear from the women about how their employers have exploited them, instead of passing judgment right out of the gate. Their dissatisfaction leads them to the Garment Workers Center in LA, with whose help they file a lawsuit against Forever 21 and protest the company’s ill treatment of their employees. When their lawsuit gets dismissed, the women petition Congress and picket stores in other parts of the country.
Director Almudena Carraceno shoots like a proverbial fly on the wall. Her long takes of arguments at meetings illustrate that organizing labor can be frustrating for everyone involved. When the women speak before a class at UCLA after their case is dismissed, we also see the toll this work has taken. Carraceno’s efforts to show the women’s lives in a well-rounded way came up against PBS’s time constraints — one of the protagonists’ efforts at bringing her sons to American from El Salvador, for example, felt abbreviated.
The film concludes on an ambivalent note. Forever 21 agrees to the Garment Worker’s Center’s conditions, but the subcontractor closes its doors, leaving many of the women unemployed. With many fast fashion companies moving their work overseas, employment opportunities for these women grow a little scarcer. One woman, Maura Colorado, enrolls in English classes and begins working towards getting documented. Lupe Hernandez, through whom we experience the film, takes a position at the Garment Workers’ Center. The film doesn’t provide us with easy answers, even as it shows how the women have grown from this experience.
While Made in LA isn’t a stylish or entertaining documentary, it is important viewing for anyone who cares about immigration and labor in the US. The film’s accessible approach to a huge issue make it as user-friendly as it is vital.
I don’t write about politics here, because this is primarily a craft blog. However, reading about the disappearance of 43 teaching students in Mexico has been painful and scary. My thoughts are with the missing students, their colleagues, and their families.
Mashable takes a look back at women’s workwear in the 20th century.
One of my favorite podcasts, Girls in Hoodies, ended a few days ago. While my Friday morning commute will never be the same, I’m excited for what Emily Yoshida has going on next…and I’m hoping that Molly Lambert will come back to podcasting soon.