Fair Labor at Home

Workers marching on May day 2013 in New York city
Photo by Michael Fleshman

As last April’s tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh illustrated, worker exploitation and abuse is still happening around the world. More than 1,200 people lost their lives, most of them women sewing clothes for US companies like Walmart. The workers had been ordered back into the building to sew, despite police warnings that it wasn’t safe.

Many Americans believe that a similar tragedy couldn’t possibly happen here in the US, and it’s indeed unlikely that any domestic company could get away with sending employees into a condemned building. That said, several US industries have workers who toil in the shadows and are subject to horrific abuse—from employees in US clothing sweatshops to workers on American farms to people toiling alone as house or hotel cleaners, child care and car wash workers, and more. One group that gets hit the hardest is US immigrants, who are often subjected to the worst workplace abuses. In the midst of very real backlash against the recent immigration reform bills (S. 744/HR 547), what gets lost in the debate is the fact that many immigrants are lured to the US by unscrupulous American employers seeking vulnerable workers to underpay and exploit.

Sweatshop Conditions at Home

When Natalicia Tracy first came to the United States from Brazil, it was under a contract to work as a nanny for two years for a family in the Boston area. Excited by the prospect of seeing a new country, learning English, and making a good living, Tracy was in for a rude awakening. 

Though she’d expected to work hard, she’d also expected a respectful relationship with her employers. But it soon became clear that that wasn’t going to happen.

Upon arrival, rather than being given her own bedroom in the family’s spacious home, she was shown to their three-season porch, where she was to sleep on a futon on the floor, even during harsh Boston winters. 

“They had told me I was just supposed to nanny [for a regular 40-hour workweek] and help out a little bit, but before I knew it, I was supposed to do everything around the house,” she says. “I worked seven days a week and until 2 a.m. on the weekends.”

In addition to caring for the children, Tracy had running errands, cooking meals, and cleaning the family’s home added to her job. When the family told her to hand-scrub their white rugs with toxic cleaning products, she began having severe asthma attacks. 
“At night, I couldn’t breathe,” she says.

Instead of taking her to the doctor, the family told her to just take some of the medicine they had on hand for their asthmatic son—after she was finished giving him his nebulizer treatment. 

They only paid her $25 a week—not even close to a living wage, and certainly not enough for her to save and pay her way back to Brazil. Not that they would have let her go anyway.

“I lived in their home and didn’t have family close by and didn’t speak any English,” she says. “I was here alone. I didn’t have a place to go or friends. They wouldn’t let me use the phone to call someone to talk about what was going on. They wouldn’t let me put mail in the mailbox. It was a very traumatic experience.”

If it sounds like modern-day slavery, that’s because it is, and it’s shockingly common here in the US. 

“People talk about sex trafficking, but they don’t talk about the very prevalent problem of labor trafficking,” says Andrea Mercado, communications director for the National Domestic Worker Alliance. “There are many cases of people who were brought [to the US from other countries] to work. They’re promised they can learn English or even be able to go to college. Often we see situations where their passports are taken away, they’re taken from their family, paid very little if at all, subjected to horrible working conditions, and have no privacy or adequate sleeping conditions. Every month we learn of new cases across the country.” 

Immigrants: A Vulnerable Population

About 23.1 million immigrants work in the US, and only eight million are undocumented. Another 240,000 come here legally as temporary guest workers. Many of the most exploited workers on American soil come from this immigrant population, both those who are undocumented and those who are legal residents or recent citizens.

Because recent immigrants may still be learning English or may be unfamiliar with US labor laws, many are taken advantage of, says Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project. 
As a result, immigrant workers are frequent victims of wage theft, dangerous conditions and uncompensated workplace injuries, discrimination, and even physical assaults, according to Smith. 

Though legal status doesn’t mean a worker is immune to abuses, the situation can be worse for workers who are undocumented. “Our broken immigration system has created an underclass of vulnerable workers in our country, easy prey to employer retaliation,” says Smith. “Across the country and across low-wage industries, employers use threats to expose workers’ immigration status as a cudgel to ensure that workers can’t complain about abusive conditions.”

A System Rooted in Slavery

Forty-six percent of US domestic workers—i.e. child and elder caregivers and housecleaners—are immigrants, and they’re particularly susceptible to abuse because they often operate in isolation. But domestic workers and farmworkers are also exploited because of an archaic rule that excludes them from important federal protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938.

FLSA was signed by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and provided basic rights to US workers—a 44-hour maximum workweek, a national minimum wage, overtime pay, and a ban on child labor. But to get it passed through a divided Congress, Democrats bowed to pressure from Southern Republicans, who wanted farmworkers and domestic workers excluded from basic protections like the right to organize to overtime pay.

Those exclusions continue to this day.

“It’s the legacy of slavery,” says Mercado. “The Southern Congresspeople didn’t want domestic workers and farmworkers—who at that time were primarily African American—to have the right to organize.”

“Domestic and farm work are forgotten professions,” adds Tracy, who is now the executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Allston, MA. “Who did this work in 1938? African Americans, who back then weren’t thought of as real people. Because of that mentality, the US developed this invisible, dehumanized workforce that still makes the rest of the economy happen.”

In absence of a federal bill that would plug the domestic- and farmworker hole in FLSA, organizations like NDWA are campaigning for state laws to do so. So far, Hawaii and New York have passed state laws, with California and Massachusetts currently moving similar bills through their state legislatures.

Sweatshops of the Field

Immigrants make up 72 percent of US farmworkers, or those who labor on farms owned by others, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health. As noted above, because of their exclusion from FLSA, they often don’t make the minimum wage—legally. 

In fact, 30 percent of all US farmworkers had total family incomes below the poverty line ($22,050 for a family of four), according to the Department of Labor. Whether working in California’s garlic fields, Florida’s tomato farms, or Carolina blueberry fields, farmworkers are often victims of wage theft, where supervisors withhold or steal their pay, and legal oversight is often lax, says the National Farm Worker Ministry.

They’re also victims of other types of abuse. A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch found that women farmworkers face a very high risk of sexual harassment or abuse, including “rape, stalking, unwanted touching, exhibitionism, or vulgar language by supervisors, employers, and others in positions of power.” Most farmworkers interviewed for the report said they had not reported the abuse, fearing reprisals, including job loss.

Farmworkers Fight Back

One group of immigrant farmworkers in Florida has had such powerful results in their fight to change abusive working conditions that the Washington Post recently called them “one of the great human rights success stories of our day.”

In 1993, a group of mainly Latino and Haitian tomato pickers in Immokalee, FL, met to discuss that their wage of 50 cents per 32-pound bucket hadn’t increased in 30 years. This meant a worker had to pick nearly 2.5 tons of tomatoes per ten-hour day to earn the Florida minimum wage, notes Guadalupe Gonzalo, an Immokalee farmworker. 

“Physical abuse and sexual harassment were common,” says Gonzalo. “There were cases of modern-day slavery on farms,” which she says, means that farm owners would force workers to work overtime, threaten them with violence, and even “lock them in a box truck.” 

And so the pickers started the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to end abuse on Florida tomato farms. Since then, the CIW has achieved several victories, including pressuring 11 major US fast food and grocery chains to sign a groundbreaking agreement with the CIW called the Fair Food Program. The program includes independent monitoring of farms and worker protections in cases of wage theft, sexual harassment, and forced labor. It also mandates a penny-per-pound wage increase, which, Gonzalo says, may seem small but does add up to make a difference in their lives. 

In 2005, Taco Bell became the first to sign the agreement. Since then, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, and others have followed suit.

Under the program, if a farm owner won’t take action to address worker complaints, the workers can go to the grocery and fast food companies themselves, which will pressure owners to make changes. If a farm continues to abuse workers, the corporations are legally obligated to stop purchasing from it—a significant threat that gets results. 

“Conditions [on FL farms] have changed in a major way since the Fair Food Program was enacted,” says Gonzalo. “Workers are calling it a new day for pickers in the fields.”

Today, the program has improved conditions for tomato pickers at 90 percent of Florida’s farms. CIW staff, including Gonzalo, focus on educating workers at those farms about their rights and on working to bring more retailers on board. They are currently targeting Wendy’s for its failure to sign the agreement. Wendy’s is the only prominent US fast food chain to not sign. 

“Wendy’s response is that it’s already purchasing from farms in the Fair Food Program, so it feels no need to join the program itself,” says Gonzalo. “But the program has teeth because of the companies that join—the farms know there will be market consequences if they violate the agreement. [By not joining], Wendy’s is not paying the penny-per-pound premium, and it doesn’t suspend farms that violate worker rights.” 

While the CIW has been a force for change in Florida, abuse still continues on farms in other parts of the country. But CIW workers are helping to spark change outside of their state.

“Workers in Immokalee are migrant farmworkers, so they’ll work in Florida for eight or nine months and then travel up to other states to pick other crops,” says Gonzalo. “CIW workers understand what rights they should have, and they [spread the word].”


Food for Thought

In the restaurant industry, one out of every ten workers is an immigrant, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Hispanic Center. That report found that 20 percent of cooks and 30 percent of dishwashers are undocumented immigrants.

“In many New York restaurants, the American waiters and hosts owe their jobs to the underpaid [undocumented] immigrants in the kitchen, whose low wages allow the restaurant to exist,” columnist Eduardo Porter wrote in the New York Times in 2012.

Saru Jayaruman, co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), stresses that the industry gets away with incredibly low wages across the board for immigrants and non-immigrants alike—and the ROC study Behind the Kitchen Door found that it’s race, not immigration status, that keeps most workers from moving up to higher-paying jobs in the industry. 

“But the industry uses fear to keep immigrants in the lowest-wage positions, like dishwashers,” she says, pointing out that employers can intimidate both documented and undocumented immigrant workers by threatening to use the federal eVerify system to prove whether an individual is legally able to work in the US. 

“eVerify is notoriously inaccurate, so employers can use it to keep [all immigrants] afraid and at the mercy of their employer,” she says. “This hurts all workers across the board, because they can pay low wages to immigrants, and that results in low wages for everyone.”

Cultural Exchanges Gone Wrong

Even foreign students who come to the US for a cultural exchange experience aren’t exempt from abuse. In March 2013, student guest workers at McDonald’s, who came from Latin America and Asia as part of a State Department-sponsored J-1 visa cultural exchange program, walked off the job amid allegations of wage theft and forced overtime. 

The students, who worked in central Pennsylvania, had been promised $3,000 to work full time at McDonald’s for a summer. Some received only a handful of hours, while others were forced to work 24-hour shifts with no overtime pay. They were housed in cramped basements owned by supervisors who took rent payments out of their paychecks, often bringing their net pay to zero, says the National Guestworker Alliance.

While the J-1 visa program is meant to provide foreign-born students with a meaningful cultural exchange, McDonald’s isn’t the only company to use it as a source for cheap, exploitable labor. In 2011, student guest workers at the Hershey chocolate factory in Hershey, PA, also went on strike, claiming that Hershey’s paid them only $40 to $140 per 40-hour workweek to toil in the factory. 

In 2012, the students won a settlement in which contractor companies in Hershey’s supply chain agreed to implement new labor protections and to pay $213,000 in unpaid wages and $143,000 for health and safety infractions.

“Not only is Hershey exploiting children on cocoa farms in West Africa, but it has even exploited student guests on American soil,” says Liz O’Connell, Green America’s Fair Trade director. “This is a company that really needs to clean up its act and treat all of its workers not just fairly, but humanely.”

And Then There’s Walmart

Walmart is infamous for alleged abuses against workers of all cultures across its supply chain, and its role in the Rana Plaza tragedy was only one example. It also stands accused of having sweatshop conditions in its US-based supply chain. In 2012, the National Guestworker Alliance found adult guestworkers, mainly from Mexico, being subjected to horrific abuses at CJ’s Seafood, a Walmart supplier in Breaux Bridge, LA. The workers reported that supervisors forced them to work 16- to 24-hour shifts, imprisoned them in the plant, and threatened them and their families. They were also subject to wage theft.

The Alliance’s work triggered federal investigations at CJ’s, and Walmart ultimately suspended the company. The Alliance also examined 18 more US-based Walmart seafood suppliers—and found over 200 labor and safety violations at 12 of those companies in the last five years. 

In addition, six lawsuits have been filed recently against Walmart warehouse contractors for wage theft—“workers not paid for all hours worked, not paid overtime, not paid the minimum wage, and not paid benefits they were owed,” says Leah Fried of Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), a worker-run organization. WWJ has, to date, helped recover over $700,000 in stolen wages through the lawsuits, with more pending. 

The victims? Mainly people of color, says Fried, with an estimated one-third to one-half of them being immigrants.

WWJ is calling on Walmart to develop “a responsible contractor policy that allows for worker enforcement” at US warehouses doing business with Walmart, says Fried. “Its current system of monitoring has done nothing to end abuse in its US supply chain. As the largest importer of goods in the US, Walmart sets the standard for the entire distribution industry, but its layers upon layers of contractors have created an industry of poverty jobs with no job security or benefits. One thing is clear—wage theft and abuse is rampant [at Walmart-contracted warehouses].”

The US Economic Backbone

While the picture many anti-immigration pundits paint of foreign-born workers is that they’re illegally taking good jobs away from US citizens, many industries have come to rely on their labor—because they’re often more willing to accept temporary work and lower wages, often in difficult industries like farm work. 

In addition, a popular myth is that immigrant workers don’t pay taxes. A 2011 study by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy found that undocumented immigrants alone paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2010. “Immigrants—even legal immigrants—are barred from most social services, meaning that they pay to support benefits they cannot receive,” notes the Center for American Progress, which points out that as a result, immigrants are a net positive to the country.

It’s important to note that while US immigrants are more likely to labor on farms, in back-of-the-restaurant jobs, and as housekeepers than native-born workers, they’re also more likely to work as physicians and surgeons, says the Brookings Institution. And studies by the George W. Bush Institute in partnership with the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce found that 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. Their research also found that although immigrants make up only 13 percent of the US population, they are 16 percent of the US labor force and in 2006 were responsible for nearly 25 percent of US patent applications.

A Richness of Experience

All of these facts only hint at the richness of experience a diverse immigrant population has to offer the country.

Natalicia Tracy is a prime example. She left the abusive Boston household when her two-year contract was up. For the next 13 years, she would take on other jobs as a caregiver for children and the elderly. 

As her confidence grew, so did her sense of social justice. She started volunteering at a homeless women’s shelter. She also put herself through college and is currently working on a Ph.D. in sociology. Her organizing abilities and passion for helping others caught the attention of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Allston, MA. She became the executive director of the nonprofit, whose mission is to provide support for workers from the Brazilian and broader Latino community. Under her leadership, the Center expanded to include programs for domestic workers, to co-found the Massachusetts Domestic Workers Coalition, and to advocate for a state Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. 

“Having been a domestic myself, it was a very natural thing for me to do,” she says of the expansion. “I understand the issues, and now I’m in a position where I can do something about it and support women who are marginalized and exploited.”

Tracy is only one person who gave back to the US after coming to its shores from another. There are many more who could achieve their full potential and do the same, if only they weren’t trapped in hopeless working situations. 

The immigrant rights movement is not about handouts, but about ensuring that every US immigrant’s situation is handled fairly and with compassion—and that exploitation of this vulnerable worker population comes to an end. 

“Immigrants have always contributed to our country,” says Mercado. “They make it more diverse, play really critical roles in our economy. All of us are touched in some ways by the jobs they do. In a lot of ways, many do the work that makes everything else possible. They’re putting food on the table and taking care of our homes and loved ones so we can go to work in other professions every day. They’re our neighbors and our friends. And they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Four Ways to Fight for Immigrant Worker Rights

1. Reach out to immigrant workers in your community who may be laboring under abusive conditions. If you don’t share the same language, find someone who can interpret for you. Take extra care to find out what their situation is and whether they need help.

The following organizations welcome calls from people who want advice on how to best intervene in a potential abuse situation:

2. Have a conversation. “Talk to others about treating immigrant workers in low-wage jobs with respect and making sure they get fair pay and meet basic needs. Normalize the conditions of thinking of each of these workers as a person—one who is doing a real job,” says Natalicia Tracy of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Allston, MA.

3. Support protections for whistleblowers. Immigrant workers may fear retaliation if they blow the whistle on abusive employers. Senator Richard Blumenthal had introduced an amendment to the Senate immigration reform bill that would have protected immigrant guest workers who alert authorities about abuse from retaliation, but the amendment didn’t make it into the final version of the bill. As the debate moves to the House, let your legislators know that you support whistleblower protections for all immigrant workers.

4. Buy green and fair. Get what you need from the truly green companies in the National Green Pages®, which are screened and certified by Green America, take extra care to ensure that all their workers earn a living wage and work in healthy conditions.


From Green American Magazine Issue