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Global Sweatshop Wage Slavery - Global Sweatshop Wage Slavery

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Global Sweatshop Wage Slavery
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Study Exposes the Dark Side of Worker Exploitation in America's Three Largest Cities

From January to August 2008, the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project, and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment exposed the dark side of workforce exploitation in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago - revealing practices common throughout America, especially during the global economic crisis making workers more vulnerable and eager for any job.

Their findings documented flagrant workplace violations, core protections most Americans take for granted, including a guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, regular meal and other breaks, compensation for on-the-job injuries, and the right to bargain collectively. The study revealed:

  • below minimum wage pay;
  • unpaid overtime;
  • denial of meal and other breaks;
  • illegal pay deductions;
  • tip stealing for tipped workers;
  • illegal employer retaliation against workers demanding their rights or attempting to form a union; and
  • workers denied legal protection by being classified as independent contractors.

Most affected were workers in apparel and textile manufacturing, personal and repair services, and private household employment. Small companies were worse than larger ones. Hourly workers and those paid by company check were treated better than those getting a weekly wage or in cash. Immigrants, women, the foreign born, and others in vulnerable categories were most at risk, but all workers are affected to some extent.

The abuses documented are endemic in key industries throughout the country, and have a profound effect on workers, their families and communities, especially with true unemployment over 20% and increased job losses monthly during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

Low-wage worker rights are compromised across the board - in jobs ranging from agriculture, meat and poultry processing, hotels and restaurants, retailing, nursing homes, day care centers, and residential construction in every city where exploitive day labor hiring exist. American workers face a system where business is empowered, their rights are eroding, and government is their enemy, not ally.

Sweatshops in Developing Countries

Abroad, exploitation is endemic in agriculture, mines, and factories producing garments, shoes, rugs, toys, chocolate, and other products. The same abuses are common - 60 - 80 hour workweeks, sub-poverty wages as low as pennies an hour, and no benefits in hazardous environments. Workers are harassed, intimidated, forced to work overtime, prevented from organizing, and fired if they complain.

Global sweatshops are mostly in Asia, Central and South America employing tens of millions of workers. It's also a children's issue as the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 250 million between the ages of 5 - 14 work in developing countries - 61% in Asia, 32% in Africa and 7% in Latin America, but scattered numbers show up everywhere. Many are forced to work, at times abducted, work for less pay than adults, and are denied an education and normal childhood. Worse still, some are confined, brutally exploited, beaten, and sexually abused with no one looking out for their welfare.

National Labor Committee (NLC) Sweatshop Report on a China Factory

On February 10, 2009, Jason Chen headlined, "Your Keyboards May Have Been Made in Appalling Conditions," then explained that Microsoft, IBM, Dell, Lenovo, and HP keyboards likely were made under  horrific working conditions at a Meitai Dongguan City, China factory.

"Workers are prohibited from talking, listening to music, raising their heads, putting their hands in their pockets." They're fined for being one minute late, not trimming their fingernails, and for stepping on the grass. They're searched on entering or leaving the facility, and anyone handing out flyers or discussing working conditions with outsiders are fired.

The assembly line never stops, so workers needing  bathroom breaks must wait for the scheduled time. Overtime is mandatory, "with 12-hour shifts seven days a week and an average of two days off a month." Anyone taking Sunday off is docked two and a half days' pay. Including unpaid overtime, workers average up to 81 hours a week on site for a 74 workweek, including 34 hours of overtime, 318% above China's legal limit.

Their base pay is 64 cents an hour, way below their basic needs, and after deductions for "primitive room and board," take-home wages are 41 cents an hour. For 75 hours a week, including overtime, it comes to $57.19 or 76 cents an hour. Routinely, workers are cheated of up to 19% of pay due them.

They're also docked two hours wages for "not lining up correctly while punching time cards or at the cafeteria," 4 and a half hours for taking personal phone calls, not working "diligently," raising their head to look around, putting personal possessions on their work desk, listening to the radio, "not parking bicycles according to company regulations," riding them at the facility not according to company rules, and returning to dorms after curfew.

They're penalized seven hours wages for switching beds without permission, one and a half day's pay for arriving over one hour late, riding the elevator without permission, using dorm electricity without permission, using company phones for personal calls, producing low quality, socializing with other employees during working hours, entering or leaving the factory without being inspected, or treating supervisors "with an arrogant attitude."

They lose three days' pay for leaving their workstation without permission, putting up notices or handing out flyers, or "revealing confidential company or production-related information."

They're fired for violating labor discipline, participating in prohibited groups (such as unions, human or civil rights organizations, or non-sanctioned religious ones), not observing government regulations on stopping work, slowing it down, or encouraging others to do it, missing three days work, disobeying China's one-child policy or company rules, causing trouble, or colluding in prohibited behavior.

NLC Report on Jordan Sweatshop

On July 24, 2009, an NLC report headlined, "US - Jordan Free Trade Agreement Stumbles," citing "human trafficking, abuse, forced overtime, primitive dorm conditions, imprisonment and forcible deportations of foreign guest workers at" Jordan's Musa Garment factory, owned by two Israeli businessmen, Jack Braun and Moshe Cohen.

About 209 workers are employed, included 181 foreign guest workers, 132 from Bangladesh and 49 from India. NLC explains the following abuses:

(1) Human trafficking

On arrival, foreign guest workers are illegally stripped of their passports for as long as three or more years, despite repeated pleas to return them.

(2) Primitive dorm conditions

As many as 10 workers live in small 12 x 14 rooms, sleeping on double-level bug-infested bunk beds. There's no shower. Water is available only one or two hours a night. Forced to conserve it, workers use small plastic buckets for morning sponge baths. It's not potable. Bathrooms are filthy and have no doors or lights.

The roof leaks and shoddy electrical system wiring frequently shorts out. With no proper kitchen, workers cook in their rooms. No heat or hot water is provided despite winter temperatures as low as freezing. They have to use their own money for portable heaters, and anyone complaining is threatened or beaten.

(3) Substandard food

Company-provided food is half cooked, raw on the inside, tasting terrible, and inadequate. Breakfast is a piece of pita bread and tea. Three times a week, they get an egg. Lunch is small portions of fish, beef, chicken or eggs with rice. Dinner is vegetables and rice. Amounts are so inadequate, workers have to supplement with their own.

(4) Forced overtime and seven-day workweeks

After the onset of global economic crisis, working hours have been from 7:30AM to 4:00 or 4:30PM with Fridays off. However, before December 2008, they worked up to 13 and a half hours daily from 7:30AM up to 9:00PM seven days a week. Overtime was obligatory, and missing a shift resulted in two or three days pay docked.  Including mandatory overtime, workers earned from $211 - $268 a month.

Most Jordanians won't work in garment factories, so tens of thousands of guest workers are recruited. They endure illegal abuses, but put up with them to support their families at home.

(5) Failure to communicate

The plant manager is Palestinian. Supervisors are Bangladeshi. They earn four times worker rates, and are told to drive them as hard as possible as well as spy on and control them.

One incident was over worker complaints about lack of water. Supervisor Mr. Rezaul mocked them, saying he'd cut of their penises if they kept complaining. Around the same time, supervisor Mr. Mosharraf slapped a woman very hard in the face for not meeting her quota. Anger was building for months. A work stoppage followed, after which 10 - 12 policemen entered the factory, threatened the workers and said either work or be handcuffed and imprisoned. The incident continued for days, including more threats and beatings, finally getting about 50 police to charge the dorm, arrest and imprison 24 workers, including 10 men and 14 women.

Six were held for over a week, then forcibly deported without their personal belongings. The others were released. While in prison, they were beaten, had no mattresses, no pillows, little food, and unsafe drinking water. The six deported had worked in Jordan for up to five years with no complaints against them.

Six other Musa workers were imprisoned in unknown locations. Factory conditions remain deplorable, and workers are threatened with imprisonment if they fail to meet mandatory production goals, called excessive and impossible to achieve. As a result, they're terrified since management targets the most outspoken.

After the US - Jordan Free Trade Agreement took effect in December 2001, Jordanian exports to America rose 2,000 percent, the result of virtually no worker protections, making them easily exploitable.

NLC Report on Bangladesh Sweatshop - The Kabir Steel Yard, Chittagong

In September 2009, an NLC report was titled, "Where Ships and Workers Go To Die: Shipbreaking in Bangladesh & The Failure of Global Institutions to Protect Worker Rights." NLC Executive Director Charles Kernaghan wrote a preface saying "If There Is a Hell on Earth, This Is It," calling the Kabir site "one of the strangest, most striking and frightening (ones) in the world."

About 30,000 workers dismantle enormous decommissioned tanker ships - 20 stories high weighing 25 million pounds, up to 1,000 feet long, and from 95 - 164 feet wide. They perform the world's most hazardous jobs 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 22 - 32 cents an hour "handling and breathing in dangerous toxic waste and with no safeguards whatsoever and under conditions that violate every local and international labor law." Serious injuries happen daily, in some cases paralyzing, for others deaths every three or four weeks. Over the past 30 years, as many as 2,000 have been killed. Life is cheap, and no one cares.

Employing mostly young men, but also children as young as 11, the operation has been ongoing for over 30 years under horrific conditions. Workers use hammers to break up 15,000 pounds of asbestos in each ship, then dump it on the sand to wash away.

Four to six of them share primitive rooms, often sleeping on a filthy concrete floor. No one can afford a mattress. Roofs leak so, on rainy nights, they have to sit up  covering themselves with plastic sheets. Their shower is a hand water pump. They deserve better and don't ask for much - 60 cents an hour, legal overtime wages, one day a week off, sick days, holidays, and healthcare to cover job injuries.

On September 5, 2009, a worker was burned to death breaking apart a South Korean tanker. Another is in critical condition, and three more were seriously burned when their blowtorches struck a gas tank that exploded, engulfing them in flames.

They're often paralyzed or crushed to death by falling metal plates. On July 14, 2008, a 13-year old child was killed when a large iron one struck his head. Accidents like these aren't reported, and investigations are never held.

On average, each ship contains about 15,000 pounds of asbestos and 10 - 100 tons of lead paint. As a result, workers are exposed to toxins from asbestos, lead, PCBs, mercury, arsenic, dioxins, cadmium, solvents, black oil residues and carcinogenic fumes from melting metal and lead paint. In addition, Bangladesh beaches, ocean, and fishing villages sustain heavy environmental contamination.

Helpers, often children, go barefoot or wear flip flops, use hammers to break apart asbestos, then shovel it into bags to dump in the sand. The most rudimentary protective gear is absent. Cutters using blowtorches wear sunglasses, not protective goggles; baseball caps, not hardhats; dirty bandanas around their noses and mouths, not respiratory masks; and two sets of shirts, not welders' vests, hoping not to get burned but they do daily.

All International Labor Organization (ILO) and Bangladesh labor laws are blatantly violated. Anyone asking for proper wages is immediately fired. Workers are assured of early deaths because conditions haven't changed in over 30 years.

A dead worker is worth $1,400. On August 12, 2008, a worker was crushed by a metal plate when a cable holding it up snapped. Another worker's leg was so badly hurt, it was amputated. A third one's hand was crushed. It's now paralyzed. In vain, the dead man's mother begged for help with burial expenses. Only after a long struggle and legal aid did she get 100,000 taka, $1,453, a cheap price for a life.

After sustaining serious injuries, another worker said:

"I was struck and knocked down to the ground. I was unconscious. I was admitted to the Chittagong Al Sattar Hospital....My backbone is broken and my head was badly injured. Now my bodily organs are not functioning. I feel nothing in my chest or back....I cannot feel my stomach....I wish I could move like I did before."

He demanded justice for his injuries, and doctors said he had a chance with proper treatment. Surgery, however, would cost 750,000 taka, $10,900, a cost the shipyard wouldn't pay. Instead, they let him rot in bed with no end in sight for his misery.

Another worker said:

"We are fighting with death always. This is not work. This is a place of punishment and death....We can't afford food, so how are we going to see a doctor and purchase medicines."

Others said work in the shipyard "is to invite death. Here a dog is more important than a human being," easily replaced. "After a cow ploughs for one or two hours, they have to be fed. But not us. We have to work 12 - 14 hours with nothing."

Workers aren't united. They have no union. They can't bargain. If they try to organize, they'll be fired and replaced. "What the owner says is the law....We work. We eat. We sleep. We don't have any life."

Inside ships, it's hot. "Very hot. We are sweating. Everyone is soaked." They often work on "floating stairs," bamboo rope ladders. It's "very risky." They hang on with one hand and operate a blowtorch with the other and use their teeth to turn liquid gas and oxygen valves on and off.

A leading Bangladeshi attorney, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, said he hadn't:

"come across another sector where every two weeks a minimum of one person is dying and there is no labour unrest. These workers are dying, getting cancer, getting skin diseases; they are also losing their hands and legs. After working in the ship breaking yards for a few years, their bodies are in such a horrible condition that they can barely do any other form of labour. It's essentially a crippling way of life."

NLC calls the world "a desperate place for the poor." Global trade rules don't protect them. They struggle to keep jobs they know will harm or kill them because of no choice. How else can they support their families.

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