NATIONAL NEWS | fall 2004
Lin Lac and her garment-worker mom
Daughters win their mothers’ battles in Oakland
As a child, Lin Lac sewed alongside her mother, who brought unfinished piecework home from an Oakland, Calif., garment factory.
“We’d all help her finish, making point edges,” says Lac, one of seven members of an immigrant Vietnamese-Chinese family.
Lac also watched her mother develop chronic back and wrist pain during 16 years as a garment worker. That’s why she eagerly agreed to help carry out a study of work-related injuries in the garment industry, launched four years ago by Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA), an Oakland-based nonprofit.
Along with several other sewers’ teenage daughters, Lac recruited workers to participate in the study and educated them about their legal rights. “It was so hard!” she recalls. “Who’d want to listen to a young person like me?”
But ultimately, even the garment bosses listened: The study culminated with the recent installation of pain-reducing ergonomic workstations in four Oakland factories.
“The young people saw the situation — no time with their mothers because of long hours, their mothers complaining of injuries, having to get part-time jobs themselves,” says Stacy Kono, AIWA’s Intergenerational Program Coordinator. “They saw connections between their experiences and their mothers’ experiences.”
Nearly all of the first 100 workers examined for the study displayed injuries, according to Nan Lashuay, director of the University of California, San Francisco, Community Occupational Health Project, which cosponsored the study.
“There was an attitude of stoicism at first, not recognizing pain, feeling helpless,” she says, “but slowly the atmosphere changed and the workers took on their own power.”
Women comprise nine out of 10 garment workers at Oakland ’s approximately 70 garment factories, Kono estimates. But they didn’t recognize their collective clout, she says, until they saw their daughters developing a program to help them.
Lashuay strongly identified with Lac and the other workers’ daughters.
“My grandma was a garment worker in New York , an Irish immigrant in the hospital laundry, and she’d talk about needles going through her hand,” she says.
Providing ergonomic workstations felt “like righting an ancient wrong,” and the Oakland project has now inspired similar ones throughout the United States .
Lac speaks excitedly about being an activist on her mother’s behalf: “[The workers] face a lot of exploitation and they deserved certain rights! I was able to help them.” As a youngster she pieced together point edges; now she’s helped create a tapestry of progressive change.
Sarah Gonzales is Ms. book review editor.