Made in Chinatown: The Decline of San Francisco's Garment Industry

By Adachi, Dean Ryuta; Lo, Valerie | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Made in Chinatown: The Decline of San Francisco's Garment Industry


Adachi, Dean Ryuta, Lo, Valerie, Chinese America: History and Perspectives


INTRODUCTION

On February 23, 2004, San Francisco raised its minimum wage from $6.75 to $8.50. (2) While many workers undoubtedly celebrated this pay increase, many local industries and employers began to look for alternative business locations as a way of avoiding the extra $1.75 per hour they would be forced to pay each employee. (3) This higher cost of employment in the San Francisco Bay Area is an important factor that contributes to companies sending their garment work elsewhere and perpetuates the decline of local unionized jobs. The disappearance of garment industry jobs is particularly devastating to the Chinese American community since immigrant women from Asia and China in particular make up the majority of apparel workers in the Bay Area.

Bay Area factories are closing down because of manufacturers' outsourcing to third-world countries where the cost of employing workers is significantly lower due to the lack of unions and minimum wage requirements. In many overseas factories the workers "face extreme job insecurity and are typically prevented from exercising their right to join and form trade unions." (4) In some cases, workers are forced to work triple shifts in sweatshop conditions. Few incentives exist for manufacturers and employers to keep the garment industry local.

The last unionized apparel factory in San Francisco, the San Francisco Sewing Association, officially closed on September 30, 2004. Skilled garment workers, such as Christina Bautista who worked at the San Francisco Sewing Association for 22 years, are left with few employment opportunities and have been forced to take lower paying, nonunionized jobs in order to make a living. (5) The few companies that have attempted to keep the industry local do so at the expense of their employees. For instance, in March 2004, local clothing line Ben Davis, Inc. attempted to cut employee benefits and vacation time as a way of making up for the salary increase it would have to provide to employees as part of San Francisco's new minimum wage law. Employees stated that the company threatened to close down the San Francisco factories and outsource to Central America and China if the employees did not voluntarily give up all of their sick days and most of their paid holidays. (6) The loss of jobs at Ben Davis would have been extremely significant to the Chinese American community in particular, since all of Ben Davis' workers as of December 2004 were Chinese or Mexican immigrants. (7)

However, in December 2004, Ben Davis employees, with the assistance and support of the Chinese Progressive Association, Oakland's Sweatshop, and UNITE HERE, approved their first contract with the UNITE HERE union and were given a significant average wage increase, had their vacations reinstated, and were able to decrease their employee health care premiums. (8) Though the victory for Ben Davis employees is significant, it is only a small win for the Chinese American community as the garment industry continues to leave the Bay Area as well as the country for cheaper labor abroad. This paper will examine why garment jobs are being lost, discuss possible solutions to this problem, and address ways in which both employer and employee interests can be balanced to keep the unionized apparel industry in San Francisco.

SCALE AND SCOPE OF SAN FRANCISCO'S GARMENT INDUSTRY SITUATION

In 1990, there were 25,461 machine operators in San Francisco. (9) Garment workers are included in this category. In 2000, the number of machine operators decreased to 18,122 employed persons--a 28.82 percent drop. According to Table 1, San Francisco lost 7,339 jobs from this category while its workforce increased by 41,293 persons.

As of the year 2000, the city of San Francisco's resident workforce was comprised of 427,823 persons. Figure 1 shows the racial breakdown of the employed civilian population. While there is no majority racial group in San Francisco's workforce, non-Hispanic Whites are the most prevalent with 187,724 persons (43. …

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