He lost his job when American Apparel closed, but this 73-year-old is still working

Written by and

Listen to the story

Read the story

There’s a one-story brick building off of Central Avenue, in the heart of industrial South LA. It has no sign at the entrance; it’s home to Los Angeles Apparel, the new company by former American Apparel owner, Dov Charney.

Inside the warehouse, huge machines are slicing long white fabric. Garment workers are hunching over their tables, while forklifts bring in more materials and pile them up on the side of the big room.

Benjamin Mateo is standing against a wall. His hands and shoes are covered in white paint. A veteran garment worker, Benjamin is now 73 years old and he’s volunteering his time to paint the new offices at this factory.

The American Apparel factory. Photos by Bear Guerra

A couple of months ago, Mateo lost his job when American Apparel closed its factory headquarters in Alameda Square. He had worked there for 15 years.

“Let me tell you, it’s like if you went to work one day and they told you, here’s your check, thank you. Please go home,” he says. “So, I feel terrible.”

Mateo wasn’t the only one. More than 3,000 workers, most of them Mexican and Central American immigrants, lost their jobs that day too.

The implications for LA’s garment workers are not clear yet, according to Marissa Nuncio, director of the advocacy organization the Garment Workers Center.

“We don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, but there were thousands of workers employed by American Apparel and they’re now unemployed,” says Nuncio. “Knowing that this is largely a sweatshop industry, our hunch is that they’re going to have to be absorbed by jobs that are not above board. Of course, we hope that’s not the case.”

Benjamin Mateo Photo by Bear Guerra (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A U.S. citizen who’s originally from Guatemala, Mateo felt secure in his job and thought he’d be able to stay there until he was ready to retire. Some of his coworkers at American Apparel were without papers, but they were able to make as much as $25 an hour in an industry where most made $15.

“For as long as I’ve been working here in the U.S., I’ve never found a company quite like American Apparel,” he explains. “Yes, we worked hard, but we also made good money. So many workers there were able to get a good car, put their kids through college—there was money to go around.”

For almost two decades, American Apparel was a success story in U.S. manufacturing, while other big garment factories moved abroad to cut labor costs. During his 17 years as company CEO, Charney was a controversial figure: He supported immigration reform while being repeatedly accused of sexually harassing his employees. After two successive bankruptcy filings, the company was finally sold in January.

Two months have passed since he lost his job, but Mateo is confident he will another. “God is going to help me find a job. I will find a job,” he says.

He’s in great health, but Mateo recognizes that being 73 makes it hard to keep up with the punishing working conditions of the garment industry.

“When you first start doing this kind of work, your back burns with pain because you’re not used to it. Your arms hurt, too,” he says. “But then your body starts getting used to it. It’s like you’re a boxer—you learn how to use that pain that you feel towards becoming a better worker.”

However, Mateo doesn’t think he’ll find another job in LA that pays as well as his old one did. He hopes he can get one at Los Angeles Apparel.

Benjamin Mateo. Photo by Bear Guerra (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“That’s why I’ve been coming around here since I lost my job, to volunteer, to make myself useful,” he explains. “I want to help Dov Charney as he gets his new company started, because I want him to be able to generate work for thousands more, as he did in the early days of American Apparel.”

The Los Angeles Apparel factory has grown quickly from 30 to 120 employees, and Charney hopes to hire as many as a thousand within a year. Currently, the company is only making plain t-shirts and wholesaling them to other businesses. And once again, his company is paying above-average wages of at least $20 an hour.

Maybe old American Apparel workers like Mateo will be able to get a spot in the new company. As a senior, though, Benjamin will likely have to take a paycut.

“We’ll see sewing operators as they age, become trimmers—”trimiadoras”—which is a much lesser pay scale,” says Nuncio. “And so that’s a big issue, you have folks who have years of experience who end up making less as they get older.”

Mateo says he’ll be happy to make as little as $350 a week, working in any capacity. That kind of pay, plus his $800 Social Security check, would at least allow him to make his monthly rent. He’s planning on asking Charney for a job sometime this month.

“At my age, I have total confidence in myself. If I went to him tomorrow and I asked him to please give me a job, I’m 100 percent sure that he will give me a job here in the new factory.”