Somber Tales of Those Who Stitch Our Clothes

Los Angeles exhibit highlights problems in US sweatshops

At first glance, the hot-pink shirt hanging in a downtown Los Angeles store window resembles a retail fashion display - a preview of the spring selections inside.

But look again. This building on 7th Street, once home to Robinsons department store, stands vacant. The shirt is not for sale. Nor is it even a fashion statement. Instead, it serves as an artistic symbol, part of an unusual new exhibit honoring the garment workers who often labor under squalid and exploitive conditions.

"Hidden Labor: Uncovering L.A.'s Garment Industry" traces the story of immigrant labor in American sweatshops from the beginning of the century to the present. Designed by eight women who make up the Common Threads Artists Group, the year-long exhibit fills nine windows of the landmark building, not far from the city's historic garment district.

Most media attention in recent years has focused on abusive working conditions in third-world sweatshops. But as this exhibit shows, even the label "Made in U.S.A." offers no guarantee that American garment workers are always adequately paid, fairly treated, or safe.

"We just want to raise the consciousness of all the people who walk by," says Eva Cockcroft, a muralist who helped design the brightly painted display windows. "Through art you can make political concerns and issues visible and human in a way that the written word can't do."

In this case, that art includes archival photographs, a time line showing the history of the Los Angeles garment industry in English and Spanish, and Ms. Cockcroft's own vibrant mural, painted on an exterior wall between two windows. She depicts four women bent over sewing machines, symbolizing the various immigrant groups that have formed the backbone of the garment industry during this century. What began as a mostly Jewish and Italian work force is now dominated by Asians and Latinas. Most garment workers are women.

"I just have a great deal of sympathy and empathy for people who work so hard for so little," says Cockcroft, explaining her participation in this project.

One display focuses on an important but little known strike in 1933 involving thousands of Latina dressmakers in Los Angeles, who for the first time voiced their opposition. Another window pays silent tribute to the dozens of Thai immigrants who in 1995 were found working in semi-slavery in a locked, windowless sweatshop in El Monte, Calif. Their virtual imprisonment lasted for three years.

Still another display focuses on the exodus of apparel jobs from the US in recent decades, as garment manufacturers searched for the cheapest labor they could find overseas.

Perhaps the most memorable window features photographs of garment workers themselves. They were among dozens of current and retired apparel workers, ranging in age from 20 to 100, who were interviewed by Common Threads artists. Accompanying the pictures are simple descriptions of their jobs and their meager wages - quotations that become powerful in their brevity:

"My name is Alicia Gutierrez. I sew cuffs and they pay 50 cents. I do about 50 a day and that is all I do."

"My name is Gloria Lopez. I am a trimmer. They pay me 12 cents each and I do anywhere from 250 to 300 pieces a day."

"My name is Graciela Fores. I put the placket on the skirts. I am paid 60 cents for each placket. I do about 50 pieces more or less a day."

Some disaffected garment workers also told Cockcroft and other interviewers of getting just 15 minutes for lunch and only two breaks a day to use the rest room. Others said they were forced to work longer than eight hours with no additional pay.

Common Threads, based in Venice, Calif., is a three-year-old women's group that supports garment workers' efforts to improve their working conditions. The artists' exhibit is funded in part by a $19,000 grant from the Community Redevelopment Agency Downtown Cultural Trust Fund in Los Angeles.

Sheila Pinkel, another artist in the group, is herself the grandchild of garment workers. Emphasizing the importance of calling attention to injustices that still exist in American sweatshops, she says, "Conditions for garment workers in Los Angeles are getting worse again. The third world is right here. People don't really understand that."

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