News/US: Informants sought against sweatshops

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Subject: News/US: Informants sought against sweatshops
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sat Feb 26 2000 - 10:18:09 EST


Informants sought against sweatshops
By Martha Irvine
February 20, 2000

CHICAGO (AP) -- The $6.25 an hour wasn't so bad -- it was more than most
were getting. What astounded Marta Esquivel were the conditions inside the
hot, stuffy tortilla factory where she toiled alongside dozens of her
fellow Mexican immigrants for more than a year on Chicago's South Side.

"A lot of times, they didn't let me use the bathroom or even get a drink of
water," the 39-year-old single mother says in Spanish, describing a
constant, deafening noise made by the factory's machinery. "There was only
one door, and they kept it locked at all times."

They sound like stories from another time. But a survey of the working poor
in Chicago and surrounding suburbs has found otherwise.

More than a third of the 800 workers questioned -- many of them immigrants
-- described conditions in factories, restaurants and other workplaces that
the U.S. government would call "sweatshops."

"This is not the garment district in the early 1900s," says Rebekah Levin,
deputy director of the Center for Impact Research, one of two nonprofit
groups that did the survey. "This is here in our back yards."

Officials from the U.S. Department of Labor and other federal agencies have
taken note -- and some unprecedented steps to tackle a problem they say has
always been tough to quantify.

Next month, the officials will meet with a newly formed task force to find
ways that community groups -- from Chinese-American and Hispanic to Polish
-- can help the government track down employers who are violating wage and
safety laws.

If it works in Chicago, the plan will be put into action in cities
nationwide, says Bruce Cranford, a Department of Labor enforcement official
who's helping oversee the task force.

In the past, regulators have investigated sweatshops once a complaint was
filed -- or staged stings targeted at specific industries, particularly
garment districts in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The new plan
is to create networks within immigrant communities to tip off regulators to
trouble. Employers violating rules will be given a chance to clean up their
acts before facing fines, Cranford says.

Surveyors found that immigrants working in this country illegally are most
likely to endure the worst job conditions. According to the survey, 70
percent of those without green cards worked in sweatshop conditions, which
the federal government defines as places where any two wage, overtime,
environmental or safety violations have occurred.

"Because they don't have papers, the bosses think they can do what they
want," Esquivel says of the tortilla factory from which she was fired last
summer after she didn't show up for work because she couldn't find a baby
sitter. "But I have my papers. I knew my rights. And I told them."

According to Levin, a surprising number of workers who are in the country
legally -- including some born here -- also toil in sweatshops. For
example, 28 percent of black workers who answered the survey said they
worked in such conditions.

"In many cases, there is a sense that there is nothing better out there,"
Levin says, noting that 28 percent of those surveyed said they worked in
conditions that endangered their health. That included exposure to
skin-burning chemicals, dangerous equipment and severe heat or cold.

A small number of those surveyed -- mostly women -- said they felt they had
to have sex with their bosses to keep their jobs.

Experts say it is impossible to determine how many sweatshops there are
nationwide or how many workers are being affected. And they say there has
been little push from the public to find out.

"The thought is, if you come here as an immigrant, you've got to go through
tough times," says Joanna Borowiec, a task force member and director of
education and employment services for the Chicago-based Polish American
Association.

Melanie Orhant <<morhant@igc.org>>
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