News/US: Chicago to enlist immigrant groups to fight sweatshops

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Subject: News/US: Chicago to enlist immigrant groups to fight sweatshops
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Thu Apr 06 2000 - 10:12:30 EDT


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Chicago to enlist immigrant groups to fight sweatshops
Martha Irvine
Austin American-Statesman, February 27, 2000

CHICAGO -- The $6.25 an hour wasn't so bad -- it was more than most were
getting. What astounded Marta Esquivel were the hot, stuffy conditions in
the tortilla factory where she toiled with 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 said in Spanish, describing a
constant, deafening noise from 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 its 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 federal government would deem sweatshops.

"This is not the garment district in the early 1900s," said Rebekah Levin,
deputy director of the Center for Impact Research, one of two nonprofit
organizations that conducted 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 new task force to find ways that
ethnic community groups can help the government track employers who are
violating wage and safety laws.

If it works in Chicago, the plan will be put into action in cities
nationwide, said 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 targeting 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 found breaking rules will be given a
chance to clean up their acts before facing fines, Cranford said.

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 of a list wage,
overtime, environmental or safety violations have been committed.

"Because they don't have papers, the bosses think they can do what they
want," Esquivel said of the tortilla factory she worked at. She was fired
last summer after she didn't show up for work because she couldn't find a
baby sitter.

Levin said a surprising number of workers who are in the country legally --
including some born here -- also toil in sweatshops. About 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 said, noting that 28 percent of everyone surveyed said they worked in
conditions that endangered their health, such as 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," said Joanna Borowiec, a task force member and director of
education and employment services for the Chicago-based Polish American
Association. "They'll tell you, 'My grandfather was in worse conditions.'
It's not that they don't sympathize. It's just seen as the immigrant
experience."

It isn't exactly the life Esquivel imagined when she swam across the Rio
Grande 15 years ago after her husband died in Mexico.

"Something has to be done," she said. "They need to see what's going on."
Melanie Orhant <<morhant@igc.org>>
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