American fashion manufacturing jobs are not immune to the horrors prevalent in overseas manufacturing. In fact, just this past week the U.S. Labor Department revealed that after investigating 77 garment companies in Los Angeles from April to July 2016, garment factory laborers are forced to work in sweatshop-like conditions. Individuals were found to be working upwards of 55 hours per week and making just $4.50 an hour.
With this in mind, the promise of more manufacturing jobs in the U.S. does not necessarily guarantee a flawless introduction of ‘good’ jobs or many jobs if we consider the recent and expected innovations in manufacturing.
In Part III of this longer-running series, Reshoring Fashion Manufacturing: Will it Live up to the Hype?, we examine some of the most commonly held misconceptions about what it means to be 'Made in the U.S.'
Fashion manufacturing jobs are historically low paying – often amounting to little more than minimum wage, if that – and when considering the jobs that have actually been offshored in droves, and those that support much of the Asian fashion manufacturing industry, they are typically low wage jobs for fast fashion giants.
The current federal minimum wage, the lowest amount a worker can legally be paid, is $7.25 an hour or about $15,080 per year, before taxes, for an average full time worker. To put that in perspective: The current poverty threshold for a household of one is $11,880.
The debate can be had regarding the difference between a minimum wage and a living wage but for the purposes of this discussion, it is worth reiterating that investigations by the Department of Labor note that sometimes, though illegal, garment workers do not even make minimum wage. The norms of the fashion manufacturing industry make these kinds of wages even more common, as workers are typically paid per piece sewn instead of an hourly wage in order to encourage faster output.
Additionally, in 2014 the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics asserted that of all hourly workers (not just those in fashion or manufacturing), 1.7 million people had wages below the federal minimum wage. As such, it appears that merely raising the federal minimum wage will not be an end-all solution, since that law is often flouted, as well.
On a state level, 29 states and DC have a higher minimum wage than the federal one. Most notably in relation to the fashion industry, New York and California have recently agreed to raise their minimum wages to $15 an hour by 2018 and 2022, respectively. As major fashion hubs this might seem to signal good news for current and prospective manufacturing workers there, but industry experts are already warning of a mass exodus of factories due to the proposed wage hike.
In April the biggest clothing maker in Los Angeles, American Apparel, laid off hundreds of employees and spoke of outsourcing to another U.S. manufacturer. While American Apparel has reported many non-wage increase related struggles recently, this development has been viewed by industry insiders as an inevitable sign of the times.
JOB SECURITY AND PROMOTION PROSPECTS
The majority of the jobs looking to be reshored in the fashion industry are essentially those of line workers who spend hours completing monotonous tasks, sometimes sewing the same seam on hundreds of garments. To that end, training levels are minimal, which, in turn, makes jobs less secure; employees are practically expendable if these jobs actually require so little training. It also does not leave much room for promotion because while there will be managerial and executive-level positions, the majority of lower-level line workers will not be considered for those jobs.
The recent demand for American-made products has revealed a gap in manufacturing skills among the U.S. workforce. Even when the jobs were available people were not always able to fill them. It seems a natural consequence of the drastic decline in domestic manufacturing has been a drastic decline in the domestic availability of skills needed for manufacturing.
In 2013, the New York Times profiled factory owners in Minneapolis who were so desperate for sewers that they spent hours posting job openings, recruiting everywhere from high schools to churches, and even trying to woo immigrants with advertisements in foreign language newspapers. Before long, the manufacturers had to turn to forming a coalition and enlisting the help of a nonprofit and a technical college to create these skilled workers themselves with the help of a 6-month long, 2-3 night a week course in industrial sewing, the cost of which was covered by charities and the city of Minneapolis.
Across the U.S. competing manufacturers are joining forces to find innovative ways to fill current job openings and encourage future generations to join the field to secure future employees. Fashion manufacturing is not all low wage monotonous tasks, and given the skills gap well trained workers are in high demand and are likely to have higher job security, but trying to convince younger generations to train in this area is a battle against perceptions.
Shinola, Detroit-based poster child for U.S. based manufacturing, has had luck in this area. The company partnered with a Swiss entity to train locals in watchmaking and a Taiwanese expert to instruct specifically in dial making. This has become the new trend, a money and time intensive necessity to take newly found labor and give these individuals the skills they will need to be successful; because even when you stumble upon a willing workforce, they will likely unskilled.
It is not a task every manufacturer is willing or even able to undertake given the costs and time commitment associate with training. However, in order to have a well-educated U.S.-based workforce large enough to support even a mid-sized company’s output, it seems to be the best – if not the only – way forward.
An industry that has been gutted over decades will have to be rebuilt from the ground up, and it will neither be easy nor fast. It is also worth noting that the companies that are commonly able to front these costs tend to produce goods for luxury markets, meaning the laborers will most likely be able to secure higher wages but probably not high enough to ever be able to afford the goods they are producing.
And once you enter the luxury manufacturing marketing you face a new level of competition: Europe. American brands and manufacturers in this space have been turning to Europe for decades to produce high quality luxury goods without the hurdle of a skills gap and without the expectation of the unethical manufacturing practices rampant throughout Asia.
RISE OF MACHINE LABOR
There is yet another reason why there may not be many jobs left for mid-level workers, aside from those lost to offshoring or even those that will return with reshoring: Jobs themselves may soon disappear as robots are increasingly being introduced to complete many simple manufacturing tasks.
For years, fast fashion giant Zara has been leveraging principles and technology pioneered by the automobile industry to cut down on its use of human capital and increase its speed to market. In their factories robots cut and dye fabrics faster and for longer than human workers. Humans are still used to finish the final product but the robots complete a substantial part of the work, which is made evident by Zara’s insanely fast speed to market. In 2012 it was reported that new products are delivered to the fast fashion giant’s then-1,670 stores worldwide twice a week; taking only 10-15 days from design to shop floor.
Adidas has also gone the way of the machine after reshoring some manufacturing to its native Germany. The sportswear giant is calling the facilities “speed factories” and plans to use them for mass shoe production beginning in 2017. These factories are largely run by machines. In fact, adidas reports having only around 10 people on the factory floor throughout the pilot phase for testing purposes but intends to have the factories be fully automated in the near future. The brnad has also stated that it aims to create a similar factory in the U.S. in the not too distant future. Its largest rival, Nike, has also been investing in similar technology and is expected to follow suit.
Chinese manufacturer, Suzhou Tianyuan Garments Company, which makes apparel for adidas, Reebook and Armani, has similarly followed this trend by moving some of their production to the U.S. The estimated $20 million Arkansas-based factory is expected to employ 400 workers at an average of $14 per hour. These wages are high for the garment industry and are the result of a call for more highly skilled laborers. Governor Asa Hutchinson describes the work that will come hand-in-hand with the Suzhou Tianyuan Garments Company factory as “highly technical, including robotics.”
As previously noted, the skills gap in the garment/apparel/fashion industry is far reaching but even more widespread in the highly technical arena of automation and robotics. The parties in Arkansas are very mindful of this and intend to help close the gap with the help of a $500,000 training grant from the government of Arkansas. This introduction of robots, or other automation or speed increasing technologies, to the industry will likely lead to specialized workers receiving higher wages but might make ordinary line workers almost obsolete.
This is not yet possible in the apparel market, as human workers are still needed to complete more delicate tasks. However, change is on the horizon. Jonathan Zornow, founder of Seattle-based startup Sewbo, reports a breakthrough in using a robot to sew a t-shirt, which may sound relatively simple but having robots work with weak and flexible fabrics has been a particularly burdensome obstacle. To overcome this, Zornow used a $35,000 off-the-shelf robot and a solution that stiffened the fabric before assembly so that the robot was able to handle it as it would sheet metal, and then rinsing the fabric in hot water to restore it to its original texture.
The U.S. government has also become involved in the quest for fully automated garment production. In 2012, the Pentagon awarded a $1.2 million grant to Softwear Automation, a US based company attempting to completely automate the sewn goods market. So far, the company has successfully sewn together two pattern pieces of a pair of jeans but have yet to automate the entire production. Though Softwear expects its proposed technology will enable a movement of production back to the U.S., as it will “allow cutting and sewing at costs less than in China.”
Given the recent push for reshoring and faster speed to market, the desire and competitive need to invest in automation technology has become apparent and coincides with what has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution, the digital revolution. With the implementation of new technologies like 3-D printing, many believe the industry is on the verge of creating a new normal for manufacturing. Even though the costs of these technologies have decreased over the years, the high cost of acquisition is still cited as a reason most brands continue to invest in human capital. However, given the higher cost of production to manufacture locally (Bangladesh minimum wage for a garment worker is $68 a month; at the federal minimum wage a U.S. laborer makes $290 a week) many businesses may now consider it to be cost effective if they intend to reshore production to the U.S.
In short, overseas manufacturing depends on human capital; millions of low wage workers that make significantly less than U.S. workers and are given notably less benefits and labor protections. The U.S., however, is rife with robotics and automation which has mostly been used in manufacturing by other industries, such as automobiles, but if the fashion manufacturing reshoring movement is to gain traction it is likely to follow suit.
Gabrielle Turnquest is a graduate of The University of Law (formerly The College of Law) in London. After law school her interest in fashion lead her to explore the industry from the side of the creative through studies at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, California.