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Chicago Sweatshop Plan May Be Model

February 19, 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 federal government would deem ``sweatshops.″

``This is not the garment district in the early 1900s,″ says Rebekah Levin, deputy director of 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 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 regulators off to trouble. Employers found breaking 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 been committed.

``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 everyone 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. ``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.

Eventually she received a green card, worked in a nursing home in Texas for $12 an hour, then moved to Chicago, where she worked at a restaurant until it closed.

Now that her unemployment benefits have run out, she says her eldest son, who is 21, helps pay the rent on her apartment.

She says she doesn’t want to go on public assistance. She wants a job. But she says applications at factories that make Mexican-style cheese and cream have gone nowhere once prospective employers check her employment history _ including her time at the tortilla factory.

Still, her troubles haven’t stopped her from speaking publicly about poor work conditions _ something many are reluctant to do.

``Something has to be done,″ she says. ``They need to see what’s going on.″

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