Category Archives: labor issues

Speak Up to Stop Unfair Trade

Leo W. Gerard, the president of the United Steelworkers International has a piece on the HuffPo:

In this struggle, it is crucial to understand that so-called free trade isn’t some lofty capitalist ideal. The U.S. engages in “free trade” with the Chinese because they hold $1 trillion in debt over our heads, an obligation they know we can’t pay. We shrink in fear of them. They’re world class bullies. They can do whatever they please. And they do. They violate international trade laws by which we abide. That’s why their stuff is so cheap. The one factor on which the price difference always is blamed — labor costs — is only the tiniest fraction of it.

Labor violations are part of the cheating. The National Labor Committee and others, including reporters from the New York Times, have documented exploitation of Chinese workers that can only be described as modern slavery. We stand in solidarity with these workers and condemn these atrocities that include very young teenagers kept in locked buildings with caged windows where they are forced to labor 14-hour shifts under grueling conditions, but find it impossible to make money or to amass the “exit fee” required to leave. They include children, women, and occasionally men kidnapped and forced to work in brick kilns, coal mines, and sweatshops in the Chinese hinterlands, with no payment other than gruel and a sleeping mat. When Chinese companies treat humans this way, they realize a competitive advantage over American firms that routinely obey humanitarian laws.

China is also one of the most dangerous places in the world to work and live because corporations fail to provide safety equipment for workers, such as dust control devices, and refuse to protect the environment with pollution control equipment. Both practices are profitable for Chinese corporations, particularly when competing with U.S. firms, which must abide by environmental and worker health and safety regulations.

Much more significant, however, are other deliberate Chinese interventions in the market, such as the undervaluation of its currency, subsidization of its manufacturing, counterfeiting, forced transfer of American technology, and refusal to give American companies access to Chinese markets with licensing restrictions, complex regulations and local content rules.

China gives breaks to manufacturers on land, rent, energy and water. Manufacturers may receive bank “loans” they know they’re not required to repay. China also exempts certain industries from income taxes and gives tax rebates on exports.

China’s deliberate currency undervaluation works as a subsidy as well. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission explains it this way: “China’s undervalued currency encourages undervalued Chinese exports to the U.S. and discourages U.S. exports because U.S. exports are artificially overvalued. As a result, undervalued Chinese exports have been highly disruptive to the U.S.”

China cheats. Free trade is a myth. The American worker doesn’t need special treatment. We’re the most productive in the world. We just seek fair competition. We want fair trade. The USW wants trade rules enforced.

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Gourmet Magazine Takes on Modern Slavery

Gourmet Magazine takes on slavery with an eye-opening piece about the working conditions faced by workers in the fields, which I discuss in the first chapter of my book Nobodies. This story deals extensively with the more recent Navarrete case:

Immokalee is the tomato capital of the United States. Between December and May, as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida, and Immokalee is home to one of the area’s largest communities of farmworkers. According to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers, Immokalee has another claim to fame: It is “ground zero for modern slavery.”

The beige stucco house at 209 South Seventh Street is remarkable only because it is in better repair than most Immokalee dwellings. For two and a half years, beginning in April 2005, Mariano Lucas Domingo, along with several other men, was held as a slave at that address. At first, the deal must have seemed reasonable. Lucas, a Guatemalan in his thirties, had slipped across the border to make money to send home for the care of an ailing parent. He expected to earn about $200 a week in the fields. Cesar Navarrete, then a 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, agreed to provide room and board at his family’s home on South Seventh Street and extend credit to cover the periods when there were no tomatoes to pick.

Lucas’s “room” turned out to be the back of a box truck in the junk-strewn yard, shared with two or three other workers. It lacked running water and a toilet, so occupants urinated and defecated in a corner. For that, Navarrete docked Lucas’s pay by $20 a week. According to court papers, he also charged Lucas for two meager meals a day: eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, and, occasionally, some sort of meat. Cold showers from a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each. Everything had a price. Lucas was soon $300 in debt. After a month of ten-hour workdays, he figured he should have paid that debt off.

But when Lucas—slightly built and standing less than five and a half feet tall—inquired about the balance, Navarrete threatened to beat him should he ever try to leave. Instead of providing an accounting, Navarrete took Lucas’s paychecks, cashed them, and randomly doled out pocket money, $20 some weeks, other weeks $50. Over the years, Navarrete and members of his extended family deprived Lucas of $55,000.

Taking a day off was not an option. If Lucas became ill or was too exhausted to work, he was kicked in the head, beaten, and locked in the back of the truck. Other members of Navarrete’s dozen-man crew were slashed with knives, tied to posts, and shackled in chains. On November 18, 2007, Lucas was again locked inside the truck. As dawn broke, he noticed a faint light shining through a hole in the roof. Jumping up, he secured a hand hold and punched himself through. He was free.

What happened at Navarrete’s home would have been horrific enough if it were an isolated case. Unfortunately, involuntary servitude—slavery—is alive and well in Florida. Since 1997, law-enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women in seven different cases. And those are only the instances that resulted in convictions. Frightened, undocumented, mistrustful of the police, and speaking little or no English, most slaves refuse to testify, which means their captors cannot be tried. “Unlike victims of other crimes, slaves don’t report themselves,” said Molloy, who was one of the prosecutors on the Navarrete case. “They hide from us in plain sight.”

Tomatoes of Wrath

In Immokalee, Florida, immigrant workers turned towards Florida’s legislature to help in the fight against slavery by making use of props and miming to show scenes of a day in the life of a modern-day slave. That is, a scene from their lives.

“There are cases of modern day slavery happening in the fields and these cases of slavery have their roots in the conditions of exploitation that are the norm here in Florida,” said Meghan Cohorst, event coordinator with the Student Farm Worker Alliance. “You have conditions where workers haven’t gotten a wage increase in over 30 years, you have cases of violence in the fields, workers who are essentially treated not like human beings but like tools for the agriculture industry to use up and then throw away.”

Writing for the Tallahassee Democrat, Daphne Holden wrote:

We watched as the workers dramatized the latest modern-day slavery operation that was successfully prosecuted in Florida a few months ago. Two farmworkers cowered in a makeshift truck while another man pretended to roughly chain their hands together. When a cardboard sun arose, the man returned to unlock the workers’ chains and forced them into the “fields,” where they pretended to pick tomatoes. The farm boss gestured as if beating them when they slowed or stopped.

When their work day was over and the cardboard sun had set, the farm boss pushed the farmworkers back into the truck, and the drama repeated itself while speakers took turns at the nearby podium. The theater was moving and disturbing.

One of my 5-year-old twins commented, wide-eyed, “Mommy, they are getting chained up again and they can’t leave.” He knew it was a performance, yet like the rest of us he also knew that it was dramatizing a horrible reality — a reality that Gov. Crist, like his predecessors, has not even publicly acknowledged….

Gov. Crist should publicly acknowledge and condemn the existence of modern-day slavery, meet with the CIW and federal officials about solving the problem, pressure the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to support the CIW’s agreements with more socially responsible corporations, and take action to abolish slavery in Florida.

Enslaved In Suburbia

An excellent look into the lives of modern-day slaves in California by Gendy Alimurung for the LA Weekly tells the story of two women who came to the United States in search of the American dream and came face to face with the cruelty of modern slavery.

The girls next door never rest. They work day and night and weekends taking care of the old people, and they never, ever leave the eldercare home on Vernon Street, hidden in plain sight inside an ordinary suburban tract house in Long Beach with light-tan stucco, white trim, burgundy awnings, a two-car garage and an American flag waving in the front entryway. Like the home’s owners, the girls are Filipino, with dark skin and dark hair. They might be pretty, if not for their miserable expressions.

Jokingly, the man next door asks the girls, “Do you ever get a day off?”

No, he finally realizes, they never do.

The man, who refuses to be identified in the article gets the Feds involved. This is California, where stars are made and it shows. When the Feds raid one of the traffickers’ homes, neighbors wonder whether another episode of Dexter is being filmed. The reality is far more disturbing.

Housing victims at traffickers’ own residences, it seems, is the norm. A profile of typical traffickers emerges. They engender mutual mistrust among the victims and instill what FBI agent Tricia Whitehall calls, in an affidavit filed in federal court, “a climate of fear” — fear of law enforcement, fear of reprisals if they stop working. Traffickers keep large sums of cash on hand. Most are vigilant record keepers — of money wires both international and domestic. Records are often written in code and by hand. They take photos of their victims. They take custody of their victims’ identification documents and passports. However futile it sounds, sometimes victims keep their own records of debt payments so they can reconcile them with their oppressors’ records.

“They are soiling what America is. They were exploiting these girls and writing off electricity, gas, water.” [A neighbor tells the LA Weekly] Can you imagine calling that a small business?”

Many do. Several years ago, Nena Ruiz, a Filipino woman working as a domestic servant for a vice president of legal affairs for Sony Pictures Entertainment sued him and his wife for enslaving her. She worked 18 hours a day performing what one paper described as “strange household chores,” which included microwaving chicken nuggets and cutting up bananas and pears for the couple’s dogs. Ruiz, meanwhile, was fed leftovers and slept in a dog bed. A jury awarded her $825,000 in back wages and punitive damages. In another instance, Elma Manliguez was paid 6 cents an hour to work under slavelike conditions as a caregiver for the family of a Merrill Lynch executive in New Jersey. They settled with her for $175,000. Then last year, a Milwaukee jury awarded close to $1 million in compensation to a Filipino woman who worked illegally for 20 years for a Wisconsin physician couple.

This is modern slavery in our country. Read more here.

Waiting for Crist to Speak Up

The denial expressed by the Florida Department of Agriculture of the persistence and severity of slavery in the fields and the silence of Florida Governor Charlie Crist are disappointing.

The Navarrete case could not be a more a clear-cut example of modern slavery: the victims were literally locked up at night, abused and refused release. Usually, we see different forms of debt peonage and psychological coercion employed to keep workers under a bosses’ illicit control, but here, the mechanisms are laid almost laughably bare.

From a bulletin on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website:

Since the late 1990’s, Florida’s fields have produced a steady stream of slavery prosecutions, and 2008 was no exception. But what made the slavery operation that came to light in the past year — resulting in the conviction of a family of farm bosses for holding workers against their will right here in Immokalee — stand out were the disturbing details of unmitigated brutality suffered by the workers, including being chained and locked inside U-Haul trucks at night, and beaten by their bosses during the day.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, was the dismissive reaction by a spokesperson for Florida’s Governor Crist when asked for comment on the case by a reporter from Ft. Myers. The spokesperson — Mr. Terence McElroy of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — appeared to downplay the significance of forced labor in the state’s fields, not once, but twice. His statements provoked an immediate outcry by human rights, religious, labor, student, and community organizations and leaders across the country.

Among those troubled by Mr. McElroy’s statements — and the governor’s own silence and inaction — was the honorable Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who wrote in a public statement:

“… Slavery persists when government leaders fail to take the necessary action to prevent it. Taking preventive action is a human rights obligation of local, state and national governments… I support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and others in urging Governor Crist to take immediate steps to combat modern-day slavery in Florida agriculture.”

As 2009 begins, Governor Crist has yet to speak on the subject of slavery in his state’s fields.

Join the CIW in asking the Governor to stand against slavery.

Domestic Workers Rising Up

In a piece for Z Magazine, Elizabeth Martinez relates the story the first National Domestic Workers Congress that took place over the summer:

Four days in June 2008 marked an unforgettable challenge to those conditions: the first National Domestic Workers Congress, held in New York City. Over 100 workers representing 17 organizations from 11 cities shared stories of abuse and struggle in various meetings and workshops. The women spoke 6 different languages and had emigrated from more than 15 different countries—primarily Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Philippines, and India.

… Domestic workers had first come together in numbers across the U.S at the 2007 U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta, forming the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It included Domestic Workers United in New York, Casa de Maryland, Damayan in Washington state, Filipino Workers Center and CHIRLA from Los Angeles, Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), POWER (People Organizing to Win Employment Rights), the Women’s Collective of the Day Labor Program at La Raza Centro Legal, and others in the Bay Area. Its goal: to build power as a workforce nationally. A work plan was adopted and a committee selected.

The June Congress demonstrated a new strength. Ai-jen Poo described the gathering: “It was great to have workers from new places­—Houston, Miami, San Antonio, Seattle, Denver. Some groups were just getting started. The first day was a lot of learning from each other and two tracks of political education: one on history, including slavery, and the second on gender and sexuality. The next day in a plenary we discussed different types of domestic worker organizing around the U.S. and then met with allies who want to organize around basic issues like war, global warming, the elections—it was important to connect our issues with larger issues.

“We had a march with 500 people to press for passage of the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In November 2008 a Democratic majority was elected to Congress in New York for the first time in 40 years, which changed the landscape of the campaign, observers said, and hopefully promised change in that state. This summer, workers from Casa Maryland scored an important victory in Montgomery County with the passage of the Household Workers Bill of Rights. It requires written contracts that spell out wages and benefits for nannies, housekeepers, and cooks working at least 20 hours a week, standards for living quarters for live-in employees, and fines for employers who violate the law.”

Read the whole piece here.

Denial and Silence in Florida

In an editorial on The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes about the fight being waged by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers against modern-day slavery:

Last Friday–just days after CIW’s visit–a Florida judge rendered his sentence on the state’s most recent slavery case. CIW had helped the Department of Justice investigate what Chief Assistant US Attorney Doug Molloy described as one of Southwest Florida’s “biggest, ugliest slavery cases ever.”

The Navarrete family had pleaded guilty to holding twelve men on their property from 2005 to 2007. They were beaten, chained and imprisoned in a truck, and forced to urinate and defecate in the corners. Two family members were sentenced to twelve years, and four were sentenced on lesser charges and will serve up to three years and ten months.

CIW worked with federal and local authorities during the prosecution and investigation as it has in seven Florida slavery cases over the past decade. Prior to escaping, the workers had listened to programming on labor rights on CIW’s multilingual radio station–Radio Conciencia–which encouraged them that they would be able to find help if they escaped. Some of the workers who then did escape made their way to CIW for assistance.

While it’s good to see some accountability for the practice of modern slavery, and the ongoing cooperation between CIW and prosecutors, the tolerance for slavery was all too evident in the wake of this trial. For one thing, Molloy told the Fort Myers News-Press, “We have a number of similar–and ongoing–investigations.” He also said, “It doesn’t help when people deny that [slavery] exists. That’s like throwing gasoline on the fire.”

But that’s exactly what seems to be happening when it comes to the state government. Republican Governor Charlie Crist has remained silent on the issue of slavery and this sentencing–including not returning calls from The Nation–and his press secretary suggested that a reporter contact Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services which oversees the states’ farms and labor contractors. McElroy seemed to dismiss the significance of the case and the existence of slavery, saying, “… You’re talking about maybe a case a year.” After a public outcry– including responses from former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, Amnesty International USA, Florida ACLU and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights–McElroy attempted to clarify his statement but only made matters worse, describing slavery as “quite a rarity when a case pops up.”

Read the entire piece here.