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THE STORY OF A GARMENT WORKER

 By Lisa Liu, as told to David Bacon 6/12/00

[Lisa Liu is a garment worker in Oakland, California.  She told her story
to David Bacon]
        I'm a seamstress in a factory with twelve other people working in a
factory.  We sew children's clothes - shirts and dresses.  I've worked in
the garment industry here for twelve years, and at the factory where I am
now for over a year.

        In our factory we have to work ten hours a day, six to seven days a
week.  The contractor doesn't pay us any benefits -- no health insurance or
vacations.  While we get a half-hour for lunch, there are no other paid
breaks in our shift.

        We get paid by the piece, and count up the pieces to see what we
make.  If we work faster we get paid more.  But if the work is difficult to
work, and the manufacturer gives the contractor a low price, then what we
get drops so low that maybe we'll get forty dollars a day.  The government
says the minimum wage is 5.75, but I don't think that by the piece we can
reach 5.75 an hour a lot of the time.

        When we hurt from the work we often just feel like it's because of
our age.  People don't know that over the years their working posture can
cause lots of pain.  We just take it for granted, and in any case there's
no insurance to pay for anything different.  We just wait for the pain to
go away.

        That's why we organize the woman workers together and have them
speak out their problems at each of the garment shops.  If we stop being
silent about these things, we can demand justice.  We can get paid hourly,
and bring a better working conditions to the workers.

        But many woman workers are scared.  Because they only work in the
Chinese community, they're afraid their names will become known to the
community and the bosses will not hire them.  That's why we try to organize
together.  Our idea is to tell these workers how to fight for their rights,
and explain what rights they have.  We let them know about the minimum wage
and that there should be breaks after four hours of work. That's why we
organize classes to teach women that we can be hurt from work. And we've
opened up a worker's clinic to provide medical treatment and diagnosis.
Everyone should know more about the laws.  We do this work with the help of
Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, here in Chinatown.

        We can't actually speak to the manufacturers whose clothes we're
sewing, because they don't come down to the shops to listen to the workers.
So when we have a problem, it's difficult to bring it to them.  Still, we
have had campaigns where we got the manufacturer to pay back wages to the
workers, after the contractor closed without paying them.  We got a hotline
then, for workers to complain directly to the manufacturers.  That solved
some problems.  The fire doors in those shops aren't blocked anymore, and
the hygiene is better.

        But it's not easy for women in our situation.  There's really no
other place for us to go.  Most of us don't have the training or the skills
to work in other industries.  We mostly speak just one language, usually
Cantonese, and often just the dialect Toishanese.

        When I first came to the United States I needed a lot of time to
work to stabilize myself.  So after seven years that's why I'm only now
having my first baby.  We don't have any health insurance, and we have to
pay the bill out of our own pockets.  Health insurance is very expensive in
the United States.  We can't afford it.  In the garment industry here they
do not have health insurance for the workers.

        Before I came here, my experience in China was that life was very
strict.  I heard that in America you have a lot of freedom, and I wanted to
breathe the air of that freedom.  But when I came here I realized the
reality was very different from what I had been dreaming, because my idea
of freedom was very abstract.  I thought that freedom was being able to
choose the place where you work.  If you don't like one place, you can go
work in another.  In China you can not do this.  When you get assigned to a
post, then you have to work at that post.

        Since I've come to the United States, I feel like I cannot get into
the mainstream.  There's a gap, like I don't know the background of
American history and the laws.  And I don't speak English.  So I can only
live within the Chinatown or the Chinese community and feel scared.  I
cannot find a good job, so I have to work the low-income work.  So I
learned to compare life here and in China in a different way.

        Many people say life here is very free.  But for us, it's a lot of
pressure.  You have to pay rent, living costs so much money, you have all
kinds of insurance -- car insurance, health insurance, life insurance -
that you can't afford.  With all that kind of pressure, sometimes I feel I
cannot breathe.

        Everywhere you go you just find low pay.  All the shops pay by the
piece, and they have very strict rules.  You can not go to the bathroom
unless it's lunch time.  Some places they put up a sign that says, "Don't
talk while you work."  You're not allowed to listen to the radio.

        Wherever you go, in all the garment factories the conditions and
the prices are almost the same.  The boss says, "I can not raise the price
for you and if you complain any more, then just take a break
tomorrow--don't come to work."  So even though I can go from one job to
another, where's the freedom?
- 30 -
---------------------------------------------------------------
david bacon - labornet email            david bacon
internet:       dbacon@igc.apc.org      1631 channing way
phone:          510.549.0291            berkeley, ca  94703
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