It has been getting increasingly difficult to find employment in Downtown L.A.’s garment district. Imported apparels are driving down the price of in-house manufacturing, while tightening labor laws are steering factories out of business.
Due to these difficulties, Korean sewing factories are primarily retained by first generation immigrants. Most of them are in their late 50s to 60s. That has made it difficult to find younger generations of Korean-Americans working in the industry.
However, things are starting to change. Younger generation of Korean-Americans are starting to gain a bigger voice within the business, although they are significantly outnumbered. Those referred to as the “young generation” in this business are in their 30s and 40s, unlike other industries in which “young” equates to the twentysomethings. In downtown’s garment district, though, 30s and 40s are considered extremely young.
Last week, the Korea Daily met with sewing factory owners thanks in large to the Korean-American Garment Industry Association’s (KAGIA) introduction, three attendees’ ages ranged from late 30s to 40s. Others were past their late 50s.
The relatively younger people in the business openly say that they are different from the aging population. Most importantly, they seem to have their own network.
“The owners in their 40s aren’t exactly ‘young,’ but the way they work is different from the first generation factory owners,” said KAGIA chairman-elect Sang-woong Hwang. “Many of the younger owners have previous experience working as a production manager and whatnot, so they already know how this industry works. They’re also sharper with calculating costs and have a better sense of how to network.”
All of this may lead to more promising signs that the garment district may start reviving its vibrancy, but financial difficulties are still palpable. For example, Eric Yoon has been operating sewing and cutting factories for four years now after working in the industry for 15 years in production.
“The cost of manufacturing is same as 10 years ago,” Yoon said. “But the minimum wage has increased during the same time span, so the margin as an owner has obviously gotten smaller. The easiest way to survive is to find a boutique business that’s not fearful of paying higher prices, but Chinese and Vietnamese factories charge even less for businesses in the U.S. to outsource manufacturing work, which makes things even more difficult for factories like ours. I’m clearly seeing a limit at this point. At most, I think sewing factories in L.A. have three more years to survive.”
Park Jae-kwang, in his late 40s, is the owner of SK Apparel. He said, “It’s not impossible to have more young people in the business, but it would be difficult to have many of them given the state of the industry at the moment.”
Sun-woo Jang, 38, is the youngest factory owner in the industry who has 28 years of sewing experience. He recently decided to relocate the factory to Las Vegas.
“This is the only work I’ve been involved in so I can’t just abandon it,” Jang said. “I have to go wherever I can survive, whether it’s L.A. or Las Vegas. I do feel that Las Vegas is slightly better off than L.A.”
By Moon Ho Kim