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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Sep 1, 2009, 12:00 pm

An American Garment Worker Asks, ‘Where’s the Freedom?’

BY David Bacon

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Lisa Liu is a garment worker in Oakland, Calif. She recently told her story to Working In These Times contributor David Bacon...

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I’m a seamstress in a factory with twelve other people. We sew children’s clothes – shirts and dresses. I’ve worked in the garment industry here for twelve years, and at the factory where I am now for over a year.

In our factory we have to work 10 hours a day, six to seven days a week. The contractor doesn’t pay us any benefits—no health insurance or vacations. While we get a half-hour for lunch, there are no other paid breaks in our shift.

We get paid by the piece, and count up the pieces to see what we make. If we work faster we get paid more. But if the work is difficult, and the manufacturer gives the contractor a low price, then what we get drops so low that maybe we’ll get forty dollars a day. 

The government says the minimum wage is $5.75, but I don’t think that by the piece we can reach $5.75 an hour a lot of the time.

When we hurt from the work, we often just feel it’s because of our age.  People don’t know that over the years their working posture can cause lots of pain. We just take it for granted, and in any case there’s no insurance to pay for anything different.  We just wait for the pain to go away.

That’s why we organize the women together and have them speak out their problems at each of the garment shops.  If we stop being silent about these things, we can demand justice.  We can get paid hourly, and bring a better working conditions to the workers. 

Our idea is to tell them how to fight for their rights, and explain what rights they have. Everyone should know more about the laws.  We let them know about the minimum wage and that there should be breaks after four hours of work.

We organize classes to teach women that we can be hurt from work. And we’ve opened up a worker’s clinic to provide medical treatment and diagnosis. We do this work with the help of Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, here in Chinatown.

We can’t actually speak to the manufacturers whose clothes we’re sewing, because they don’t come down to the shops to listen to the workers. So when we have a problem, it’s difficult to bring it to them. 

Still, we've had campaigns where we got the manufacturer to pay back wages to the workers, after the contractor closed without paying them. We got a hotline then, for workers to complain directly to the manufacturers. That solved some problems. The fire doors in those shops aren’t blocked anymore, and the hygiene is better. 

But it’s not easy for women in our situation, and many are scared. Because they only work in the Chinese community, they’re afraid their names will become known to the community and the bosses will not hire them. 

That’s why we try to do things together. There’s really no other place for us to go. Most of us don’t have the training or the skills to work in other industries.  We mostly speak just one language, usually Cantonese, and often just the dialect Toishanese.

When I first came to the United States, I needed a lot of time to work to stabilize myself. So after seven years that’s why I’m only now having my first baby.

We don’t have any health insurance, and we have to pay the bill out of our own pockets. Health insurance is very expensive in the United States. We can’t afford it. In the garment industry here, they do not have health insurance for the workers.

Before I came here, my experience in China was that life was very strict. I heard that in America you have a lot of freedom, and I wanted to breathe the air of that freedom. 

But when I came here I realized the reality was very different from what I had been dreaming, because my idea of freedom was very abstract.  I thought that freedom was being able to choose the place where you work.  If you don’t like one place, you can go work in another. In China you cannot do this.  When you get assigned to a post, you have to work at that post. 

Since I’ve come to the United States, I feel like I cannot get into the mainstream. There’s a gap, like I don’t know the background of American history and the laws. And I don’t speak English. So I can only live within Chinatown and the Chinese community and feel scared. I cannot find a good job, so I have to work the low-income work. 

So I learned to compare life here and in China in a different way. Many people say life here is very free. But for us, it’s a lot of pressure. You have to pay rent, living costs so much money, you have all kinds of insurance -- car insurance, health insurance, life insurance – that you can’t afford. 

With all that kind of pressure, sometimes I feel I cannot breathe.

Everywhere you go you just find low pay. All the shops pay by the piece, and they have very strict rules. You cannot go to the bathroom unless it’s lunch time. Some places they put up a sign that says, "Don’t talk while you work."  You’re not allowed to listen to the radio. 

Wherever you go, in all the garment factories the conditions and the prices are almost the same. The boss says, "I cannot raise the price for you and if you complain any more, then just take a break tomorrow--don’t come to work." 

So even though I can go from one job to another, where’s the freedom?

David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013), Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

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