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Where EAST meets the Northwest

MADE IN AMERICA. Made in L.A. follows three Latina garment workers in Los Angeles as, aided by Asian-American activists, they wage a three-year battle against a major clothing retailer. Pictured is garment worker María at a sewing machine. (Photo/Almudena Carracedo)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #37 (September 11, 2007), page 13.

Tale of garment workers’ struggle offers compelling story

of courageous women and immigrant communities

Made in L.A.

Directed by Almudena Carracedo

Produced by Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo

By Toni Tabora-Roberts

The story is at once jarringly familiar and frustratingly unknown. Immigrant workers toil in garment factories — overworked, underpaid, in dire conditions. In the late 1800s, America’s earliest "sweatshops" in New York City were filled with European immigrants. Incredibly, the story has barely changed over 100 years later, except the location of the sweatshops (Los Angeles), and that today’s workers come mostly from Latin America and Asia. Behind the labels of the largest clothing retailers you will find the poorest exploited workers.

Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s documentary Made in L.A. follows one such story, the three-year lawsuit of 19 garment workers against giant clothing retailer Forever 21 for unfair labor practices. The film recounts the journey through the eyes of three workers in their campaign to claim workers’ rights and gain lawful working conditions. In addition to the garment workers, we also meet dedicated Asian-American activists who support the workers’ efforts to organize, pursue legal action, and campaign nationally.

The first part of the film introduces the main subjects, who meet through the Garment Worker Center, a nonprofit that provides a venue for organizing and education for garment laborers. María, a shy mother and wife, is a farm girl from Mexico who met her husband at age 14 and came to the U.S. by age 18. Feisty Lupe grew up in tough conditions in Mexico City, arriving in the U.S. at age 17. Single mom Maura left three babies in El Salvador at age 22 to come to America so she could provide for her family.

We also meet several organizers, all daughters of Asian immigrants, who play a prominent role in these workers’ struggle. Joann Lo, lead organizer, and Kimi Lee, center director, help run the Garment Worker Center. Julie Su is an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center who leads the legal action on the case.

In 2001, activists at the Garment Worker Center received complaints of unpaid wages, no overtime pay, and unfit labor conditions from a long list of workers from three to four specific factories. It is eventually uncovered that the factories serve retail giant Forever 21. After much deliberation, the team of garment workers and activists decides to pursue a lawsuit against Forever 21, holding them ultimately responsible for unsuitable labor practices in the factories that provide their clothes, even though the retailer is several steps removed from the garment-making process.

Attorney Julie Su explains the basis of their argument. "What we said was that Forever 21 systematically demanded and perpetuated sweatshop conditions. They dictate how much they’re going to pay, the quantity and turnaround time. And we believe the only way those garments can be produced is by exploiting workers." This campaign was groundbreaking in that it was essentially asking courts to hold large retailers responsible for the work that their subcontracted factories did. If successful, the lawsuit could change the way the entire retail clothing industry does business.

As the story unfolds, we witness the difficult and long life cycle of an organized labor-rights campaign. The struggle starts energetically as workers are empowered with knowledge and encouragement. Protests at local Forever 21 stores bring attention to their predicament. The cause endures a variety of setbacks, including a judge’s dismissing their case (which they appealed) and María’s husband’s forbidding her to continue in the campaign. The grueling persistence required for a three-year battle sees the energies of the protestors start to wane. The team perseveres, even touring across the country to bring awareness to the issue, and manages to find a positive outcome.

In addition to a story of political struggle, the film is a coming-of-age story of both women and immigrants. Maria, Lupe, and Maura’s intimate stories reveal the plight of immigrant women who must endure oppressions of class, ethnicity, and sex in order to care for their families and to pursue dreams of a better life in America. And the journey of their children is somehow foreshadowed in the stories of Joann, Kimi, and Julie, daughters of immigrants who’ve now dedicated their lives to pursuing an equitable society. By the end of this film, the story of all these women becomes a compelling narrative in a larger history of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants and the defining role of women in the struggle against oppression.

The film is timely and important in this age of rampant consumerism and anti-immigrant political dealings. The character-driven film is thoroughly watchable, bringing stories you can relate to on a human level. But that also made it rather exasperating and provoking — I was left wanting to know more — about the history of sweatshops, about what’s happening now, and how to do more to change this cycle of subjugation. To me, that’s a sign of an effective documentary, opening the door to a world that perhaps you knew very little about.

Made in L.A. will air on Oregon Public Broadcasting as part of PBS’s "P.O.V." series, along with two short films by May Lin Au Yong, Bullet Proof Vest and Keeping House, on September 16 at 11:30pm. To learn more about Made in L.A., visit <www.madeinla.com>. To verify show times, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <www.opb.org>.