This Bill Aims to Change the “Fabric of the American Garment Manufacturing Industry”

By Cathalijne Adams
May 20 2022 |
“Every single day, every one of us starts the morning getting dressed. ‘What are we going to wear?’ But the question we don’t ask ourselves is, ‘What did it take to make the clothes that I’m going to wear?'” New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) said at Ferrara Manufacturing, a family-owned, woman-owned, unionized apparel manufacturer in New York City on May 12. | Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

The FABRIC Act aims to revitalize the American garment industry and close labor law loopholes, supporting nearly 100,000 U.S. workers.

At its peak, America’s apparel factories employed 1.4 million people. Today, that number has dwindled to 93,800 Americans, as a decades-long flood of cheap foreign imports continues to rage. Meanwhile, China alone has gained approximately 1.25 million jobs and Chinese apparel imports to the U.S. have swelled to $30 billion annually.

But the answer to this challenge is not to try to beat China on pricing.

“It’s time to take bold action at the federal level to change the fabric of the American garment manufacturing industry,” said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D). “The United States was once home to a booming apparel manufacturing industry, and it’s time to reexamine how this industry has evolved over the past 50 years and change how we treat our workers.”

Rather than race to the bottom in competing with imports on rock-bottom production costs, which may well be subsidized by forced labor, Gillibrand introduced legislation on May 12 that aims to assert America’s position as a leader on labor protections and revitalize the U.S. garment manufacturing industry.

“This legislation would thread the needle of protecting workers’ rights, putting an end to abusive pay rates, and ensuring equitable compensation for garment workers, while also making historic investments in domestic garment manufacturing so we can not only make American, but buy American,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand’s bill, the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act, would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to prohibit payment-by-piece-rate compensation schemes as base pay for workers, which has historically been used to short workers on pay for their hours of work.

California passed similar labor protections into state law in 2021, prohibiting piece-rate pay.  

“The FABRIC Act is so exciting to me as a garment worker because at its heart are protections for workers’ hard-earned wages, protections we recently gained in California,” said Teresa Garcia, member leader of the Garment Worker Center. “To see these protections go nationwide, and have incentives to encourage manufacturing in the US, would be life-changing for so many workers and the industry as a whole.”

Additionally, the FABRIC Act would create new liability requirements as a means of holding fashion brands accountable for their manufacturing partners’ labor practices, and a public registry that identifies which manufacturers are in good standing.

These increased protections are especially important for the U.S. garment industry as its workers face “the second-highest rate of wage theft of any group of workers in the country,” Gillibrand’s release states, with women accounting for 61% of the workers in the cut-and-sew apparel manufacturing industry.

“Much of American manufacturing hasn’t changed since 1938, but with a few small updates we can protect workers while creating more competitive advantage for businesses to reshore their production. The FABRIC Act has identified these updates and laid out a plan to accomplish this improvement,” said Jessica Kelly, the founder and CEO of sustainable sourcing platform THR3EFOLD. “As compliance and sourcing experts, we have seen the positive impact well-run factories have on a community, and believe this bill could not only help underperforming facilities improve, but also equip great factories with much needed updates to be positioned as global leaders and rebuild our industry as we move forward.”

Though the labor protections within the FABRIC Act are historic, the bill’s financial investment in U.S. apparel manufacturers is a critical component to bolstering the industry. The FABRIC Act would establish a $40 million domestic garment manufacturing grant program and a 30% reshoring tax credit.

“Reversing the flow of manufacturing back to the US and revitalizing domestic production is a vital pathway to a new manufacturing future of increased domestic jobs, global sustainability and survival of our heritage NY garment industry,” said Mi Jong Lee, the founder of the Made in New York women’s wear brand EMMELLE.

The AFL-CIO, UNITE HERE, and Workers United are among the bevy of other labor organizations, fashion brands and manufacturers who have endorsed the FABRIC Act.