Study Finds Sweatshops Widespread in Chicago

More than one third of immigrant and low-income workers in Chicago work in sweatshops. That's the conclusion of a study by the Sweatshop Working Group, a coalition of 34 organizations, that set out to document sweatshop abuses across many industries.

Chicago is among the first destinations for immigrants, but until now organizers didn't know the extent or severity of sweatshop abuses. Government officials claimed the problem was not that severe since very few complaints had been registered.

Robert Ginsburg, research director at the Center for Labor and Community Research (CLCR) and one of the authors of the study, was shocked by the results. "The fact that 37 percent of people we surveyed work in substandard workplaces was much higher than I would have thought," he said.

Rather than seek out work sites, canvassers "talked to immigrant and low income communities to find out what their experience is like," Ginsburg explained. Community organizations involved in the Sweatshop Working Group interviewed close to 800 people, and the Center for Impact Research and the CLCR wrote the study.

The survey used the government's definition of a sweatshop. According to Ginsburg, "The GAO did a report that said a sweatshop is anything that violated two or more labor standards. The indicators are pretty basic: paid less than minimum wage, unpaid wages, taxes not deducted, no breaks, no bathroom, no ventilation, locked exits, etc. Those were the violations we were looking for."

No ventilation was suffered by 37 percent of respondents, while most wage and hour violations reported fell in the 15 to 20 percent range. "If you look at people who work in factories, there were many violations such as health and safety, often wage and hour as well," noted Joanna Borowiec of the Polish American Association.


As expected, the survey found that undocumented workers were severely exploited. Seventy percent labored in sweatshops. More surprising to Ginsburg was the finding that "37 percent of legal permanent residents and 22 percent of U.S. citizens surveyed worked in substandard work places.... Some people think it is purely an issue of being an undocumented worker, but other communities also suffer substantial violations."

"All workers are exploited that have trouble speaking English or who are not organized to assert their rights at work, but undocumented workers are especially targeted by employers," said Tim Bell, a community organizer at Erie House. "I've seen undocumented workers complain and be fired for complaining. Immigration status is used as an excuse for termination." Erie House, which assists over 1,000 workers a year, was one of the community organizations that administered the survey.

Language barriers featured prominently in anecdotal evidence of abuse. A Polish woman who spoke no English was dropped off in the middle of rural Indiana to care for a paralyzed elderly couple. The employment agency never paid her. She was rescued several weeks later when she found a friend's phone number and was able to read the town name off of a utility bill.



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Bell hopes that the study will make people aware of how severe the sweatshop problem really is. "Once you have that awareness then you start to get more than just a few people interested in the issue. In the long run, it is something workers will have to take control of themselves," he said. "Workers are very distrustful of outside institutions; that includes unions, community organizations, and the government. Whatever we can do to support the workers so they can stand up in an organized way will challenge sweatshop conditions."

The survey demonstrated that sweatshops are not limited to the garment, textile, and restaurant industries. "This is also manufacturing," Ginsburg explained. "The garment industry in Chicago is minimal. When people think about sub-standard workplaces, they have to think beyond those old categories. And it is not just in the inner-city, also in suburbs." Thirty-five percent of respondents working in the suburbs were employed by sweatshops, compared to 34 percent in the city.


Unfortunately, the survey measured the "best of the worst." The workers responding all had institutional connections to the community organizations and churches that administered the surveys. The workers who suffer the worst violations are those "cut off from most institutions and community organizations," noted Ginsburg. "Even so, we found a lot of problems."

Some of the study's recommendations include setting up hot-lines administered by unions and community organizations so workers can report violations, and streamlining EEOC, OSHA, and other Labor Department offices so that they can quickly respond to any violations, not just those under their jurisdiction.

The community organizations involved also hope that resources can be found to support worker organizing. Bell, from Erie House, explained: "In order for people to assert their rights, they need to be organized, but it is not enough for someone to come from outside. The workers have many leaders within their own ranks. Given some tools they could organize themselves. It would not be that difficult; they do it naturally. Given enough accompaniment and support, they are very capable of doing it. I have seen it happen."

The survey results will hopefully lead to more cooperation between the unions and community organizations in the Sweatshop Working Group.

"Unions have come to us looking for help with the Polish community, since most of our staff is bilingual," said Borowiec. "We've never formally worked together, but we have helped them several times. Hopefully we will work together to resolve issues regarding workers in Chicago."

Bell added, "Community organizations have a lot to learn from unions and vice versa," added Bell. "There is not a historical partnership between the two but there is a strong movement in that direction which is very positive." Unions involved in the effort included the IBT, SEIU, UNITE, and UE..

For a copy of the survey, contact Robert Ginsburg, CLCR, 3411 W. Diversey, # 10, Chicago, IL 60647. Or e-mail: rginsburg [at] igc [dot] org.