The leggings you just bought at Forever 21 may have more problems with them than an excess of sequins.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Forever 21 clothing is being produced in "sweatshop-like conditions" by workers in Los Angeles-area factories, the agency said in a press release on Thursday.
"We have proof that the goods going to Forever 21 from certain garment contractor shops are being sewn by people who aren't being paid properly," Priscilla Garcia, director of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division in West Covina, Calif., said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
The Department of Labor subpoenaed Forever 21 in late August, demanding information about working hours, wages and overtime among its suppliers. So far, the company has ignored the request, according to Garcia.
Forever 21 did not respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon. The privately held company, which produces low-priced, trendy clothing, is rapidly expanding in the U.S. and abroad. Its owners, Korean-American devout christians, print the phrase "John 3:16," a Biblical verse, on the bottom all of the store's yellow shopping bags.
The Department of Labor's investigation into the company's suppliers, which began earlier this year, is part of a larger project to better regulate Southern California's garment industry, which employes many low-wage immigrant workers from East Asia and Latin America. In the past five years, the agency has conducted 1,500 investigations in the region, 93 percent of which uncovered violations, according Garcia. The violating companies owed a total of $11 million in back-wages to about 11,000 employees, the agency found.
One big problem in California's garment factories is that employees are paid per piece they sew instead of per hour, which doesn't always yield a minimum wage, according to Garcia. Meanwhile, "there's an ignorance of the law among retailers," she said. Typically, a company like Forever 21 sends designs to manufacturers who in turn employ various contractor shops that sew the goods. "When [retailers] are purchasing an item they sometimes have no clue of where it's actually made," she said.
Forever 21 has gotten in trouble for unfair labor conditions at Los Angeles-area factories before. In 2001, 19 Latino garment workers, aided by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, sued the company, saying they had worked 10 or 12 hour days without overtime in dirty and unsafe conditions. In 2004, when the case was settled, Forever 21 committed to improving conditions in the local garment industry.
Garcia says the Department of Labor wants retailers like Forever 21 -- as well as consumers -- to have more "social awareness of where goods are being produced and whether the people sewing them are being paid properly," she said.