Garment Workers Force Changes

A group of garment workers and their teenage daughters forced the garment industry in Oakland, CA’s Chinatown to improve their working conditions.

By Lee Romney, LA Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — For nearly a decade, Kwei Fong Lin tolerated numbness in her forearms. Like a great many Chinese immigrants who work in this city’s cramped and poorly equipped garment factories, her neck and back ached from long days spent hunched over a sewing machine while perched on rickety folding chairs, stools or even crates.

“We just took the pain as it came,” the 52-year-old Hong Kong native said in Cantonese.

But an unlikely revolution has taken root here. Today, dozens of women work in relative comfort while seated on customized ergonomic chairs. Simple table extensions relieve their tired shoulders. Wooden footrests keep their legs from dangling. Padded sleeves cushion the metal rods they must press hundreds of times a day with their knees to clamp and release fabric.

A city grant will soon bring the ergonomic equipment to other garment shops that dot Oakland’s Chinatown and other commercial strips. And the project has spawned a much larger study now underway in Los Angeles County — the heart of California’s rag trade.

Most surprising in an industry synonymous with powerless and mistreated workers: The women made it happen. They did it with the help of a group of teenage girls tired of seeing their seamstress mothers suffer, and a team of medical professionals, ergonomics experts, state health officials and product designers.

(It’s an inspiring story and an example of what govt and industry can do together when they try.)

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