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Made in Chinatown: the decline of San Francisco's garment industry.


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.


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 (43.88 percent), followed by Asians with 116,327 persons (27.19 percent).

Within San Francisco's garment working industry, the racial makeup is very different than that of San Francisco as a whole. Of the 5,641 employees in this industry, an overwhelming majority of 4,774 (84.63 percent) are Asian, as seen in Figure 2. The second largest racial group working in the garment industry is the 512 Hispanic garment workers (9.08 percent). According to census data, 4,303 (76.28 percent) of these employees are female.

Figure 3 breaks down the Asian ethnicities within San Francisco's garment industry. Of the 4,774 Asian garment workers, 4,425 (92.69 percent) are Chinese.

Table 2 lists statistics from the year 2000 for San Francisco's garment workers and the entire city's workforce, for the total population, Asians, and Chinese. While only 2.16 percent of Chinese males in the San Francisco workforce work in the garment industry, 9.81 percent of Chinese females in the San Francisco workforce work in the garment industry. This statistic shows a significant gender imbalance in the demographic makeup of garment workers. Table 2 also contains additional information of interest, such as the higher numbers of Asian females than Asian males in the workforce, which goes against the city's overall trend.


The data shows that San Francisco's Asian American community suffered a significant loss of garment-working jobs, in particular the Chinese American females that hold a staggering majority of these jobs. Due to the combination of (1) the number of jobs in the garment industry in San Francisco dropping sharply since 1990 and (2) the high correlation of Chinese females and garment work, it is safe to assume that the number of employment opportunities for Chinese American females is decreasing. If these trends continue, one out of every ten Chinese American females over the age of sixteen in San Francisco will become unemployed as a result of losses in the garment industry.


Figure 4 shows the California Employee Development Department's estimates of nondurable goods jobs, of which garment work is included, in San Francisco between 1990 and 2003. This category has gone from a high of 23,200 jobs in 1991 to 8,000 jobs in 2005--a 65.5 percent loss. (10) Meanwhile, San Francisco's total job market has decreased by only 6.8 percent over the same time period. (11)

The California Employment Development Department estimates that there were 4,280 garment workers in San Francisco in the year 2001, followed by only 3,610 garment workers in 2002--a 15.7 percent decrease in just one year. They have projected that by 2012 the number of garment workers will drop an additional 28 percent to 2,600. The annual rate of job loss has slowed, but it is still alarming that there is still a continued trend of losing jobs. Garment work is a part of society that will never completely vanish, but it is highly unlikely that this industry will ever grow back to where it once was.

This study's interviewees were found through the assistance of former San Francisco State University Asian American Studies students. The interviewees are made up of relatives and acquaintances of the students and were interviewed with the assistance of the students. The interviews were conducted in person and over email. The in-person interviews of Wei-Khan Yau and Que Chi Feng (a Chinese immigrant couple in their 40s) were conducted in the interviewees' primary language of Shanghainese. Three of the interviewees were working in the garment industry at the time the interviews were conducted (October and November 2004). Wei-Khan Yau moved on to the service industry as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant after learning Cantonese. The three interviewees Feng Cheng Chen, Que Chi Feng, and Anonymous, who remain in the garment industry, state that they do not feel their jobs are secure. Que Chi Feng stated that she believes she may lose her job at any moment due to the increase in outsourcing.


The loss of garment jobs in San Francisco is particularly of concern to Chinese Americans since they currently make up 92.29 percent of workers in the industry. In the early 1900s, immigrant Chinese women in San Francisco could only obtain factory jobs or become employed in domestic work. In Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, Judy Yung states that Chinese women lacked the ability to work in professional and high-paying positions due to their race and gender. (12) Immigrant Chinese women saw the garment industry as one of their only options for work outside the home. The manufacturers' need for cheap, exploitable labor, the loss of male workers to higher paying industries, and the immigrant women's need to provide for their families led to an industry where Chinese women dominated the very bottom of the society. Chinese women could not advance and organize unions in the early 1900s due to racism, their inability to join Chinese guilds that regulated workers hours but were limited to male membership and then shortly disbanded after women became employed in the industry, minimal or no English language skills, and lack of political consciousness. Later, without job opportunities in other industries and due to their limited language proficiency, they continued to look for work in San Francisco's garment industry even after apparel manufacturers gradually began to send their garment work overseas and unionized factories in the area closed their doors. (13) Currently, there are no unionized garment factories in San Francisco, leaving many garment workers with few economic opportunities beyond working in sweatshops. (14)

In "Immigrant Asian Women in Bay Area Garment Sweatshops: 'After Sewing, Laundry, Cleaning and Cooking, I Have No Breath Left to Sing,'" Miriam Ching Louie discusses the history of globalization affecting San Francisco's garment industry. (15) Manufacturers have taken garment jobs out of the San Francisco Bay Area because of the ability to expand their profits by sending their piecework to overseas sweatshops. Further, loopholes such as Item 807 of the U.S. Tariff Code allow U.S. industries to send cut pieces of cloth to be assembled overseas. The manufacturers profit from Item 807 because they have to pay a tariff only on the "value added" to the garment, rather than the value of the entire garment sent back to the United States. Thus, garment manufacturers have little incentive to employ local workers because using sweatshop workers abroad allows them to greatly cut production costs.

Garment manufacturers in San Francisco now have few if any reasons to keep the industry local. One of the only ways in which manufacturers would be persuaded to keep the production process local was if the Bay Area fashion industry was similar to that of Los Angeles or New York. Louie critiques a Business Week article that discusses how quick-changing trends in the fashion industry call for goods to be produced locally since goods produced abroad need to be ordered far in advance and in bulk quantities. Further, by the time they arrive in the United States, fashion-conscious customers may already have moved on to the next popular trend. However, whether or not the garment industry keeps jobs in San Francisco or sends work abroad, a crucial concern is how the employers will treat their workers in both the United States and overseas countries. Keeping the industry local does not guarantee that the workers will be free from exploitation.

The primary method in which garment and service workers have fought back against exploitation and outsourcing has been through organizing labor unions and taking part in strikes. While the first generation of Chinese American garment workers lacked social services such as business classes, job-training skills, the support of community organizations, and English-speaking skills, the second generation of Chinese American women benefited greatly from this kind of community assistance as well as from organizations such as the YWCA, which not only helped their social development but "encouraged them to expand their public roles." (16) Additionally, it was likely a combination of involvement in politics and community support that prompted Chinese American women in San Francisco to begin joining unions in large numbers in the 1930s. The Chinese Ladies' Garment Workers Union was the first organization to bring immigrant Chinese women together in 1937 to organize against unfair treatment from their employer, National Dollar Store. While the union did not win a complete victory, they did reach a working agreement giving the women a pay raise, overtime, and paid holiday on Labor Day. The Chinese Ladies' Garment Workers Union was able to win this victory due to strong organizing skills and persistence. Additionally, in 1937, National Dollar Store as a vertically integrated company could not easily turn to outsourcing as a solution for not having to pay adequate wages to women in local factories. However, even if National Dollar Store had not been vertically integrated at the time of the strike, trade alliances such as NAFTA allowing for cheaper outsourcing had not been established at this point.

Today, immigrant Chinese and Asian American women in the Bay Area face losing jobs unless they agree to undo the victories of previous union organizing and work in sweatshops. In Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry, Ellen Israel Rosen discusses the history of events that have forced the apparel industry to transform from a local industry to a global industry, resulting in fewer jobs for workers in the United States and higher levels of exploitation for workers abroad. (17) Rosen labels trade liberalization as a primary factor in the global outsourcing of clothing in order for the United States to win the "race to the bottom" as a way to keep the cost of manufacturing clothing as cheap as possible. The United States can participate in the "race to the bottom" only by turning their backs to the unsafe and unfair conditions in sweatshops, or by outsourcing to third-world countries with lower wages and higher levels of exploitation.


Employers relocate garment jobs because of the high cost of doing business--namely rent and labor--in San Francisco. Rent can be one-third greater than the price for a similar space in the East Bay. (18) Along with rent, labor costs are 20 to 40 percent higher in San Francisco due to the highest minimum wage in the country, $9.14 per hour as of January 1, 2007. (19) The jobs are not just being moved to other parts of the United States, but also abroad where rent and labor are even cheaper than the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. (20) The outsourcing of production jobs is not taken lightly by garment workers as they continually watch the industry move from local to global. For instance, three out of this study's four interviewees stated that they believe that garment industry jobs have been moved to Asia, namely China and India, because of the cheap labor and lack of industry regulations overseas. Hence, outsourcing of production is increasing due to globalization and the vicious capitalistic push to increase profits by lowering costs.


Sweatshops are nothing new to the United States and have been around since the 1820s. (21) However, NAFTA and globalization are new and are pushing the costs of rent and labor down below the federal minimum wage. (22) If companies such as Levi's Jeans are outsourcing overseas and a smaller company such as Ben Davis is not, the Ben Davis products will need to be priced higher to make a similar profit and will eventually be forced to go out of business.

Garment work is unique when compared to other manufacturing industries. Labor constitutes 27 percent of production costs for garment manufacture compared to only 10 percent in manufacturing as a whole. (23) Lowering the labor costs immediately affects how much the consumer will have to pay and the competitiveness of the manufacturer. San Francisco's minimum wage effectively prices it out of the market for the garment industry. There are no apparent reasons to locate a garment production facility in San Francisco, when Oakland currently has approximately 15 percent cheaper labor, outside of California has approximately 50 percent cheaper labor, and countries overseas such as Bangladesh have as much as 98 percent cheaper labor.

For instance, a local worker, interviewee Feng Cheng Chen, was fired in 2004 from a garment factory in San Francisco when the factory moved to Daly City where they would not have to pay the $8.50-per-hour minimum wage. Chen was then offered a job in Daly City but turned it down because it is too far from her home. Chen stated, "The earning is the same if I work there or if I only get the unemployment money. Basically, I['d] rather stay home and go to study English (more rest) than to work, at which the money is the same." Additionally, the federal poverty level is $9.93 per hour for a family of four, so workers at this minimum wage in cities such as Daly City are living in poverty. (24)

Figure 5 shows how money travels in order to create garments. The retailer is the primary beneficiary of incoming capital, and through sales, all other parties can benefit financially As this chart shows, garment workers are at the bottom of the profit chain. According to Richard Appelbaum and Peter Dreier, the cost of labor represents only 6 percent of the total garment's cost. (25) Since all gross profits from retailers must first be filtered through manufacturers, contractors, and subcontractors--as well as licensers and endorsers if applicable--the garment workers are usually not left with any profit.

Garment factory operators are fighting a losing battle by keeping the jobs in San Francisco. Even though UNITE (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees) won a small battle against Ben Davis, ultimately it would lose the war, with the company being relocated to a less expensive location outside of California or even the United States. The loss of garment industry jobs is not compassionate, moral, or good for the local economy. Globalized capitalism is at work where a global labor force can manufacture a finished product in several countries to maximize profits.


According to the California Employment Development Department, there were 3,610 garment workers as of 2002. In terms of income taxes, this group represents over $9 million in potential revenue for the city. This study proposes three policy solutions to protect local garment workers and keep the industry free from exploitation.

* City incentives to employers to keep garment jobs in San Francisco

* Education in conjunction with consumer advocacy

* Vertical integration of garment-producing companies

City Incentives

In Beyond Asian American Poverty: Community Economic Development Policies and Strategies, Paul Ong discusses how many recent Asian American immigrants in Los Angeles are living on the margins of society as members of the working poor. (26) Ong states that the reasons why numerous Asian immigrants become trapped in low-income jobs, including the garment industry, are their low levels of education when they immigrate, lack of marketable job skills, and high rates of illiteracy in the home country that result in difficulty learning English. For instance, none of this study's interviewees has a high school diploma. Two of the interviewees did not attend any high school at all, thus they are faced with the burden of learning English as well as obtaining a high school equivalency in order to find employment beyond the garment industry. Thus, recent Asian immigrants as well as Asian Americans who have been locked into low-wage jobs often have no alternatives for survival but to continue on in jobs that lack benefits, healthcare, and any chance of upward mobility. When even undesirable jobs begin to leave the area due to the trend toward global outsourcing, the workers are often left with no choice but to take an even lower-paying job often in a more exploitative environment.

Ong suggests community, state, and national policies for helping Asian immigrants and other Asian Americans gain agency in their employment choices. Ong states that the government needs to take into account low-income workers and the U.S. Department of Labor must "formulate a new manpower agenda to meet the challenges of a new global economy." (27) One way of keeping up with the global economy is by continually upgrading the workers' skills in order to increase productivity. An example is implementing English courses and high-tech means of production, giving the garment workers continuous job training to increase their skill levels so they will not be in the same position when they leave the job as when they started. Further, if the workers are given job training that encompasses more than just their current position, they will have more employment opportunities if they are forced to leave the industry and will actually have a choice about whether or not to leave. For instance, interviewee Que Chi Feng attends English classes when she is not working in the garment factory. At this point, since she has been working in the factory for six years and "does not want to die in the garment factory," she is very motivated to learn English. Feng believes that learning English is her only option for a career move out of the industry since she does not have a high school diploma and is getting too old for many other careers.

While Ong discusses how society can help the workers, he also discusses how the government can offer tax credits and subsidies to private employers who hire "disadvantaged" workers (Ong 74). For example, the government pays a percentage of the employees' wages if the employer will provide work experience to low-income individuals and welfare recipients. Thus, low-skilled workers are given the opportunity to engage in a new form of work and learn new job skills and the employer does not lose profits by having these lower-skilled workers on the payroll. In the San Francisco garment industry, government subsidies may be able to help employers to pay the new minimum wage increases as well as offer more job security to the workers since they will be guaranteed compensation as well as a set number of hours. However, subsidizing the $1.75-per-hour increase (and additional $0.64 after two subsequent increases in January 2005 and 2006, and the new increase as of January 1, 2007) in minimum wage for the city's 3,610 garment workers is not economically ideal, since it would cost the city over $12 million annually--$3 million more than the city's revenue from garment workers' income taxes.

Education and Advocacy

While job training will assist low-wage garment workers in their transition out of the industry, "sweat-free" policies being adopted by schools help redirect funds and support from the exploitative corporations into companies that refrain from using sweatshops in their clothing manufacturing. In Sweat-Free School Purchasing Resolutions: A New Trend? Ben Plimpton discusses how school districts across the country in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York are developing "sweat-free" policies in the purchasing of all their athletic uniforms and sports equipment. (28) Plimpton states that the high school students are the driving forces behind these policy implementations since the students have taken an active role in labor issues and have brought their concerns to the school board.

As public high schools began to implement "sweat-free" policies, school board members used these policies to educate the public about the apparel industry and the conditions under which clothing is made. School board members decided to publicize contracts with "sweat-free" businesses, such as American Apparel and SweatX, so that the community could scrutinize these contracts and make sure the school districts would not go back on their promise to only deal with "sweat-free" corporations. Although "sweat-free" garments generally cost about twice as much as sweatshop-produced garments, implementing such policies educates the community about the clothing industry. More importantly, the policies empower consumers to force the retail industry to make changes in where they purchase goods, or run the risk of losing local consumers. Thus, consumer as well as retailer education can be a major factor in whether sweatshops will continue to control the apparel industry As one interviewee in Plimpton's article mentioned, "I don't have any idea of the conditions under which the products we sell are made. Even the guy I buy from doesn't know where the products are made."

In both Beyond Asian American Poverty as well as in Sweat-Free School Purchasing Resolutions, the writers discuss the need for local and government agencies to step in to help eradicate dependency on sweatshops. Ong recommends that the government subsidize and give tax breaks to employers who give low-skilled employees job opportunities while Plimpton states that local governments can help to educate the public about sweatshops by allowing school districts to contract with "sweat-free" corporations as a way to take money and support away from sweatshops. Both writers also stress the need for further education, whether in job training or in learning about where clothing comes from as a way to empower workers, retailers, and consumers.

As consumers gain education about the prevalence of sweatshops in the apparel industry, they can then mobilize and pressure corporations to take responsibility for the abuses occurring in apparel factories. According to MSNBC International Business News, clothing retailer The Gap, Inc. put together the first social responsibility report of its kind. It documented the abuses and violations occurring at the majority of its overseas factories and highlighted the measures the company will take to improve the conditions in its factories and "counteract its reputation as an employer of sweatshop labor." (29) The article discusses how The Gap did not decide to conduct inspections of its factories solely for the purpose of benefiting the workers but were pressured by their shareholders as well as labor activists. Labor activists are now using The Gap Social Responsibility Report to motivate other "giant retailers" to take similar steps to improve the conditions in their own factories. Labor activists are also using the report to show the public the financial difficulty in having corporations comply with labor laws. By presenting the report to the public, The Gap and labor activists can rely on public monitoring as one way of forcing continual compliance in the overseas factories. Public monitoring of large corporations is similar to public scrutinizing of school districts to force them to keep their contracts with "sweat-free" corporations, as mentioned in Plimpton's article.

The Gap's social responsibility report includes charts depicting the violations in the factories according to frequency and region. This forced The Gap to examine each of their overseas factories, eventually terminating business with 136 factories where the most severe and persistent violations occurred. Now that the public has free access to The Gap's report, it is likely that if any of the factories still in business continue to severely abuse their workers, there will be intense pressure on The Gap to evaluate the factory and end business contracts with the manufacturer. Thus, without any cost to taxpayers, public education can be a catalyst for corporate accountability and compliance.

Vertical Integration

As illustrated in Figure 5, garment creation and distribution are controlled by a series of intermediaries between the garment worker and the consumer. By increasing the efficiency of the garment process through vertical integration, garment workers can earn higher wages with full benefits, while maintaining a competitive business. One example of a vertically integrated garment manufacturer is American Apparel, which claims to have "consolidated all stages of production under one roof at [their] downtown Los Angeles factory--from the cutting and sewing of the garment, right through to the photography and marketing." (30) By refusing to outsource, American Apparel remains competitive with quick turnaround times and superior quality control. Most importantly, their roughly 4,000 garment workers are offered affordable health care, immigration support, free English and computer classes, subsidized lunches and bus passes while earning an average of over $12.50 per hour. (31)

As previously mentioned, vertical integration faces potential drawbacks when it comes to maintaining a profitable business. For instance, the clothing is often twice as expensive as sweatshop-produced clothing due to the lack of outsourcing. However, American Apparel succeeds with brisk sales through their 143 retail stores in eleven countries. American Apparel's gross sales for 2006 were an estimated $300 million. (32) As a result of vertically integrating the company and minimizing transportation costs, American Apparel maintains an 80 percent gross margin, rather than the industry average of 60 percent.

Another negative aspect of vertical integration is the complexities involved in balancing the supply chain. Any snags or inefficiencies in the development cycle of the items can dramatically affect production. Also, as new technologies are created to increase product yield, a vertically integrated company may require expensive infrastructure costs that a smaller, more specialized company could implement at a much lower price. Fortunately for American Apparel, the production techniques of garment design, manufacturing, and distribution have remained relatively consistent over the past few years, thus enabling their success as an efficiently organized and well-operated vertically integrated company. For comparison, in the consumer electronics industry, only a small percentage of vertically integrated companies have been successful (e.g., Apple Computer and Nintendo) due to rapidly evolving hardware development and applications. As for other garment manufacturers, few have chosen to adopt the vertical integration model due to the high initial cost that results in a low return.

Despite its apparent success in promoting growth within the garment industry, American Apparel is not without its detractors. American Apparel's ethics have been questioned by a number of individuals and groups. The company uses sexually provocative advertisements of their own youthful and attractive store employees as models to attract a younger audience. Four former employees have filed sexual harassment lawsuits against founder and Chief Executive Dov Charney. Furthermore, UNITE HERE filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against American Apparel for alleged anti-union activities. (33) UNITE HERE Senior Research Analyst Stephen Wilshart states, "[R]ather than truly commit to the principles of being 'sweatshop free' and respecting the workers' freedom of association and the right to form unions, American Apparel denies its workers the right to collective bargaining and the ability to have a voice on the job." Finally, it appears that American Apparel's self-promoting claims may soon fall victim to its rapid success. As the company plans to open 650 more retail stores worldwide, it becomes apparent that the current facility in downtown Los Angeles will be unable to handle such mass production and thus will force outsourcing as the only cost-effective solution.


Given the problem of garment industry jobs moving out of San Francisco, this study examines three solutions. Garment jobs are on a steep decline, with no turnaround in sight. In reality, very little can be done to stop the forces of capitalism and globalization. Short-term intervention is no longer viable. However, a long-term evolutionary model suggests that through education and training for other job skills, current garment workers would be able to keep their jobs and unskilled immigrant workers would be less likely to seek future work in the garment industry. This study's recommendation is to take a multidimensional approach aimed at garment workers, employers, and consumers.

* Educate workers in the English language. One of the main reasons immigrants work is exploited in garment jobs is their lack of English skills. Inadequate English skills prevent garment workers from entering other industries and limit them to opportunities in their ethnic economy. (34)

* Make companies accountable for employing sweatshop labor through advocacy. Doing so will reduce demand for these goods and produce public compassion for the situation of the San Francisco garment workers.

* Pursue the vertical integration model where companies and workers control the design, production, distribution, and retailing of the garments. One point that should be emphasized is the fast turnaround that can be achieved through a local garment production facility.


In conclusion, the flight of garment industry jobs from San Francisco is a major problem for the Chinese American community. The reasons are higher costs for rent and labor compared to other parts of the United States, and especially overseas. Businesses are leaving to lower their costs and stay competitive, or even just to stay in business. By following the suggested multidimensional approach, San Francisco can reduce demand for sweatshop-produced goods, market the positive aspects of local garment production, educate garment workers to improve their English skills, and ultimately retrain them for another industry where their jobs are not at risk due to globalization. By addressing both short- and long-term goals of garment workers and community advocates, current garment workers can improve their lifestyle and future unskilled immigrant workers will have a better chance to succeed in San Francisco.


(1.) The authors wish to thank Joannie C. Chang, Esq., from the Asian Law Caucus for proposing the idea of researching how outsourcing of garment industry jobs affects Asian Americans in San Francisco; Professor Russell Jeung and the Fall 2004 Asian Americans and Public Policy class at San Francisco State University for their feedback, assistance, and support in helping us to further our research; and Maggie Yan, Ethan Lee, and William Yau for their help in contacting and recruiting interviewees and performing Chinese-to-English translations.

(2.) San Francisco's minimum wage was again raised on January 1, 2005, from $8.50 to $8.62, on January 1, 2006, to $8.82, and on January 1, 2007, to $9.14 per hour. However, the 2004 increase is the most significant for the purposes of this paper since it was the largest increase and considerably affected workers in San Francisco's garment industry

(3.) Workforce Investment San Francisco, Labor Workforce Investment Board for the City and County of San Francisco. Quarterly Briefing: San Francisco's Labor Market, April 2004.

(4.) "Play Fair at the Olympics!" Sweatshop Watch, Spring 2004, 5.

(5.) Kate Williamson, "Apparel Business Dries Up," The San Francisco Examiner, September 6, 2004.

(6.) "Ben, Spare Some Change," Sweatshop Watch, Summer 2004, 5.

(7.) "Good News in 2004," Sweatshop Watch, (accessed April 8, 2007).

(8.) "Ben Davis Garment Workers Win Contract," Asian American Movement Ezine: Progressive Radical & Revolutionary Asian American Perspectives, labor/bendavis/html (accessed April 8, 2007).

(9.) Although the number of garment workers was specifically recorded in the 2000 Census, it was not specified in the 1990 Census. For comparison purposes, this study will examine the 1990 Census category of "Machine operators, assemblers, inspectors, handlers, equipment cleaners, helpers, and laborers" with the 2000 category of "Textile, apparel, and furnishings workers."

(10.) "Occupation Details: Nondurable Goods," California Employment Development Department, http://www.labormarketinfo. riteria=Clerk&careerID=&menuChoice=occExplorer&geogArea =0604000075&soccode=516031&search=Explore+Occupation (accessed April 12, 2007).

(11.) "Occupation Details: Total Wage and Salary," California Employment Development Department, /cgi/dataanalysis/cesReport.asp?menuchoice=ces (accessed April 12, 2007).

(12.) Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: California University Press, 1995), 88-89.

(13.) Ethan Fletcher, "Minimum Wage War," San Francisco Examiner, April 28, 2004, (accessed September 9, 2004).

(14.) While Ben Davis did continue to reside in San Francisco as of Spring 2005 (according to's Spring 2005 newsletter), its current address is no longer San Francisco, California, but Novato, California, a city with a lower minimum wage than San Francisco.

(15.) Miriam Ching Louie, "Immigrant Asian Women in Bay Area Garment Sweatshops: 'After Sewing, Laundry, Cleaning and Cooking, I Have No Breath Left to Sing,'" Amerasia Journal 18, no. 11 (1992): 1-26.

(16.) Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: California University Press, 1995), 206-214.

(17.) Ellen Israel Rosen, Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry (Berkeley: California University Press, 2002).

(18.) Dan Mihalovich, "Current News & Commentary: 4Q2003," The Space Place, (accessed October 6, 2004).

(19.) "San Francisco's Minimum Wage to Increase," SFGOV: Office of the Mayor (September 21, 2006), page.asp?id=46399 (accessed April 8, 2007).

(20.) "Wages: Minimum Wage," United States Department of Labor, (accessed October 6, 2004).

(21.) "The Seamstress," Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present, Smithsonian National Museum of American History: Behring Center, sweatshops/history/seamstress.htm(accessed October 6, 2004).

(22.) "Chapter 1: Objectives," North American Free Trade Agreement,, edu/Bulletins/Nafta/01.objective (accessed October 6, 2004).

(23.) Jan Lin, Reconstructing Chinatown. Ethnic Enclave, Global Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1998), 59.

(24.) "FPL: Federal Poverty Level Guidelines," Coalition of Community Health Clinics, (accessed April 13, 2007).

(25.) Richard Appelbaum and Peter Dreier, "SweatX Closes Up Shop," The Nation, 040719&s=appelbaum (accessed December 12, 2004).

(26.) Paul Ong, Beyond Asian American Poverty: Community Economic Development Policies and Strategies (Los Angeles: Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, 1993), 16-20.

(27.) Paul Ong, Beyond Asian American Poverty, 73.

(28.) Ben Plimpton, "Sweat-Free School Purchasing Resolutions: A New Trend?" CorpWatch (February 6, 2003), (accessed October 26, 2004), 1-2.

(29.) "Gap reports widespread labor violations: Workers rights' trampled at factories worldwide, retailer says," MSNBC International Business News (May 12, 2004), id/4963367/(accessed October 30, 2004), 1-2.

(30.) "American Apparel--Mission and Politics--Why American Apparel?" American Apparel, mission/vertical.html (accessed December 12, 2004).

(31.) "Company Information," American Apparel, pressCompanyInfo.html(accessed April 12, 2007).

(32.) "Face value: Dov Charney, the hustler," The Economist (January 4, 2007), cfm?story_id=8486888 (accessed April 12, 2007).

(33.) Stephen Wilshart, "The Truth Behind American Apparel: Sweatshop Free or Union Buster?" (January 2005), (accessed April 12, 2007).

(34.) However, English is not the only language that helps Chinese Americans move out of the garment industry. For instance, two of this study's interviewees, Wei-Khan Yau and Que Chi Feng, stated that they felt trapped in the garment industry primarily because they do not speak Cantonese, the main language of San Francisco's Chinatown. Thus, other jobs beyond the garment industry exist in Chinatown but they require workers to speak Cantonese. Once Wei-Khan Yau became conversational in Cantonese (which he chose to learn over English because it was easier to pick up) he was able to move out of the garment industry and into a job as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. Yau is much happier in this new line of work.

Dean Ryuta Adachi and Valerie Lo (1)
1990 AND 2000 CENSUS

Year Workforce Machine operators, etc.

1990 386,530 25,461
 6.59% of workforce

2000 427,823 18,122
 4.24% of workforce

Source: United States Census Bureau. SF3 P078, 1990. SF4 PCT86, 2000.


 Workforce Garment Industry %
 Male 232,781 1,338 0.57%
 Female 195,042 4,303 2.21%

 Male 57,618 952 1.65%
 Female 58,709 3,822 6.51%

 Male 36,467 786 2.16%
 Female 37,097 3,639 9.81%

Source: United States Census Bureau. Census Summary File 4 (SF4)
PCT86, 2000.

Figure 1: San Francisco employed
civilian population, by race, in the 2000 census

Non-Hispanic White 43.88%

Non-Hispanic Black 4.91%

Asian 27.19%

Hispanic 12.04%

Multiple or
other race 11.97%

Note: Table made from pie chart.

Source: United States Census Bureau. Census Summary File 4 (SF4)
PCT86, 2000.

Figure 3: Asian garment
workers, by ethnicity, in the 2000 census

Vietnamese 1.57%

Other Asian 1.17%

Chinese 92.69%

Thai 0.17%

Korean 1.49%

Filipino 2.91%

Note: Table made from pie chart.

Source: United States Census Bureau. Census Summary File 4 (SF4) PCT86,
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Article Details
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Author:Adachi, Dean Ryuta; Lo, Valerie
Publication:Chinese America: History and Perspectives
Article Type:Industry overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Previous Article:Scenes from the garment industry, 1960s-1970s: setting fashions, negotiating working conditions.
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