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LA Manufacturing Industry Still Supported By Garment Workers

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Los Angeles is famous for its film industry. Less well-known, it is home to the most manufacturing jobs of any city in America. A large chunk of those jobs are in the garment industry, a sector that has long been a bedrock of LA's economy. As part of American Made, our look at the changing face of manufacturing, NPR's Kelly McEvers reports on this low-skilled industry in an age of high-skilled manufacturing.

KENT SMITH: We are on 9th Street between Main and Los Angeles, which is really the traditional hub of the district.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: That's Kent Smith. And we're standing in a part of downtown LA that for a long time has been known as the garment district.

SMITH: Well, actually these buildings were all manufacturing when I first came here in '99. The top couple of floors of the Newmart building still had manufacturers in it.

MCEVERS: Smith heads a group working to revitalize the district. When he says manufacturers, he kind of means sweatshops, those notorious garment factories where hot steam poured out of windows until late in the night. A lot of American cities have these districts, right? Places where our grandparents could just show up with a high school education, get a job and raise a family. It was 1983 when Esperanza Monterrosa came to LA from El Salvador. Three days later, she had a job in a garment factory.

ESPERANZA MONTERROSA: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: Jeans, dresses, blouses, she says. It was always the same thing.

Like the other garment workers she knew, Esperanza got paid per piece sewed, not per hour. It's legal to pay garment workers this way as long as it comes out to minimum wage, which it rarely does. Esperanza worked really long days to finish enough pieces to survive.

She eventually returned to El Salvador to get her son, then crossed back into the U.S. pregnant with twins, and later had a fourth kid here in LA. She saved up, bought an industrial-sized sewing machine. A manager would drop off material at her house.

MONTERROSA: (Speaking Spanish).

GILBERT: She said sometimes they would deliver the kids diapers with the material that they would bring to her because they didn't want her leaving the house. For seven days straight, she would work and work and work, you know, piece after piece after piece.

MCEVERS: That's Esperanza's oldest son, Gilbert. He even worked back then removing lint for three cents apiece. By the mid-'90s the garment industry was changing. Some big factories closed and sent work overseas, but still immigrants kept coming to LA to do the work.

MONTERROSA: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: Esperanza says that when the pay and the quality got worse, so did her eyesight. The kids eventually said they would support her if she quit. Gilbert now manages the Genius Bar at an Apple Store. Another son is a welder at SpaceX. The youngest daughter is in college. And the other daughter, well, listen to how this guy describes her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Cynthia Florez is the daughter of a single mom who worked as a seamstress and a housekeeper, the first in her family to graduate from high school, the first in her family to graduate from college. And in college, she says, I learned about myself that I was good at advocating for others and that I was argumentative. So maybe I should go to law school.

MCEVERS: So even though the work for Esperanza Monterrosa was grueling and she made just enough to get by, she was able to raise four kids on her own. Now you can't even do that. Economists say that's because when factories go overseas, it forces global wages for unskilled work down. While the garment industry has helped keep LA as a manufacturing city for longer than other American cities, economists agree this industry is not the way of the future.

It's still dark, 6 in the morning.

ELIA REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: It's early, and Elia Reyes is heading downtown. Elia is a trimeadora. She cuts pieces in garment factories for as low as eight cents apiece, like almost half what Esperanza was making in the '80s and '90s. Elia lives here in LA by herself. She says there's no way she should could support anyone else. Some mornings she shows up at the factory and there's just no work, so she keeps looking.

REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: And if no factory will hire her, Elia collects bottles and recycles them for money. We make it to downtown and drop Elia off at the factory. It looks like just another storefront on a dirty street. We can't go inside, so we wait.

REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: No work today, Elia says. She smiles, shrugs and asks us for a ride to the next factory down the street. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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