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The American Way
How American Apparel's Dov Charney set a higher standard for his employees — and his peers.
Impressions Magazine
Wendy Angel
August 2002

"It's not about American-made, it's about American values."

The words of 32-year-old Dov Charney, senior partner, are the essence of what Los Angeles based American Apparel strives to be and is — a sort of rabble-rouser in the profit driven world of the apparel industry.

From the beginning more than 10 years ago, this cutting edge garment manufacturing company has placed a premium on some pretty old-fashioned values. Though making garments in American is important to Charney (last January he closed American Apparel's Mexico-based factory and centralized all production, design and management in Los Angeles) the values he holds most dear are the ones that govern the way he treats his workers.

Charney is committed to sweatshop-free working conditions. He feels manufacturing in foreign countries has negatively altered workers' lifestyles, and he's committed to changing his employees' lives — for the better.

An Enlightened Workplace
It's not that Charney is against foreign production per se, but he does believe that many companies' business models are based on unfair treatment of their foreign workers — something he actively fights against. Too often, Charney explains, instead of paying workers a proper wage, manufacturers push production offshore so they don't have to think about it.

"I think this is a problem, and I think the industry has to address it," he says. "The T-shirt is an icon of freedom and represents the American cool, and now the T-shirt is becoming an agent of exploitation."

Extra Effort
At American Apparel, things are different. The nearly 800 workers enjoy relatively high pay ($10 an hour or more for an experienced sewer) [actual wage as of Jan. 2004: $12.50/hour], free English classes four times a week, 80 hours of education through California's Employee Training Program, a yoga room and countless other benefits.

But it isn't the money Charney spends on employee benefits that sets his company apart — it's the extra effort taken to ensure that employees are happy and healthy. "A business owner has to research entitlement opportunities for his workers," says Charney. It's not enough that all employees, hourly or salaried, have access to the company's health-care program. American Apparel's reach is greater — the company sends an R.V. staffed with registered nurses to the factory once a week for basic needs and referrals. The firm's human resources department also teaches its employees how to file claims and enroll their families in California's low-cost health-care program for kids.

"The children of low-wage workers are often eligible for extremely low-cost, almost free health insurance," Charney say. "Yet, the records show that many of these children don't get on these programs." To remedy this shortcoming, American Apparel surveys employees to find out if their children are covered and helps them secure whatever coverage they are eligible to receive.

For those with children who are ineligible for the program, American Apparel offers a similar program for a low fee. The family can even pay for it via automatic deduction from a paycheck.

More on the Agenda
Charney's plans include offering additional employee assistance, providing onsite daycare at company headquarters, and possibly building subsidized housing. He even wants to give hourly employees a week of paid vacation by the end of this year.

Like a true visionary, Charney carries his beliefs far beyond the factory gates, and he isn't afraid to make a stand. He and some 500 American Apparel employees took part in the May march to Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Los Angeles to support immigrant's rights.

And his actions are getting noticed. In the past two years he has garnered coverage in The New Yorker, Apparel News, Bobbin, The Counselor, The Book Los Angeles and Time. He is scheduled to appear on PBS and has just been recognized by Fashion Business, a Los Angeles non-profit that supports local designers.

Although he constantly receives e-mails lauding his efforts and now has an award to boot, Charney believes there is still work to be done. "It's an honor," he says, "but it's just a start — we're not even halfway to where we want to be."