Maria, 58, rapidly sews one piece after another, deftly operating her sewing machine with the kind of skill that comes from her many years of experience as a seamstress. But at just three cents for each label sewed and five cents for adding a trim to a piece of clothing, she never manages to make more than US$6 an hour. Maria, who is undocumented, has been working for 30 years in the fashion district of Los Angeles, the capital of the United States’ garment industry, which employs more than 40,000 people, the vast majority of them immigrants. “As long as I’ve done this job I’ve always been paid by the piece rather than by the hour. And the pay has never gone up,” she says.

In order to earn around US$250 a week, Maria has to work up to 12 hours a day Monday to Friday, from 7am to 1pm on Saturdays and sometimes even on Sundays. The working conditions she faces aren’t too dissimilar to those found in some sweatshops in Asia: despite the high temperatures that prevail most of the year in Los Angeles, most factories are neither air-conditioned nor ventilated. “Many workers even avoid drinking so they don’t waste time going to the toilet. My colleagues often develop kidney problems because of this,” she says.

A few months ago, Maria joined a female-led coalition fighting for passage of the Garment Worker Protection Act (also known as Senate Bill 62), a bill currently being debated in the California State Legislature that would put an end to exploitative practices in the garment industry.