The US has always claimed to be the 'land of opportunity' the place where immigrants who are willing to work hard can expect to find well paying jobs and maybe even strike it rich. Periodically, however the 1920s and again in the 1990s politicians have lashed out against immigrants, claiming that too many immigrants move to the US and take jobs away from American born workers. The reality has always been quite different. Rather than competing for employment, the vast majority of immigrant workers have always been forced into the dirtiest, lowest paying jobs from backbreaking work in farm fields to toiling in inhuman conditions in garment sweatshops.
And the situation for most immigrants has worsened significantly over the last two decades, as wages for all US workers have fallen. For example, farm workers, who are mostly Mexican immigrants, have seen their wages fall by 25 percent over the last two decades, even before adjusting for inflation. Many farm workers now earn only $8,000 per year a drop from $9,000 just a few years ago.
And recently released government statistics show that sweatshops have once again become the norm in the garment industry, employing at least 1 million immigrant workers. The government estimates that more than half of the 22,000 sewing businesses in the US pay workers below the legal minimum wage and violate overtime laws, forcing workers to work 60 hours per week or more without overtime pay. More often than not, garment employers offer no health coverage, and no vacation or sick pay.
The Washington Post described working conditions at one New York sweatshop, which sews garments for Wal-Mart and KMart: 'The workers typically toiled at their sewing machines for up to 60 hours a week in a room with wires hanging from the ceiling, three small fans that served as the only source of ventilation and no fire exits. Wages were arbitrarily cut or delayed if the owner ran short of funds. Employees who missed a day would be illegally "fined" $30, on top of losing a day's pay.'
Furthermore, the article reported, bosses think nothing of hitting workers or pulling their hair. At a different sweatshop, a worker described how the owner's wife struck a worker in the back for sewing buttons incorrectly. Another worker was reportedly fired for yawning on the job.
The extreme degradation suffered by garment workers first came to light in 1995, when immigration officials raided a sweatshop in Los Angeles, only to find 68 Thai immigrants living in virtual slavery. Locked in and surrounded by a razor-topped fence, the workers were forced to work six days a week for 17 hours a day, at wages as low as 70 cents per hour. After they were discovered, the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service removed the workers in shackles, imprisoned them long enough to testify in a hearing, and then deported them back to Thailand.
Last summer a 29 year old garment worker named Nancy Penaloza came forward and testified about the working conditions she had experienced over a nine year period in New York. She said she had regularly worked for 66 hours per week in filthy conditions, with 'big rats and mice' constantly crawling on her feet in a sweatshop with one toilet for all 100 workers. She said, 'I get paid off the books. Even though I am working legally, my boss doesn't pay any taxes or social security... I never get a vacation. I never even get a whole weekend off.' She said that in her current job she was paid $6 for each suit she made, which stores such as J C Penney or Ann Taylor then sold for $120 or more. The US Labour Department estimates that labour costs typically account for less than 3 percent of the retail price of clothing made in the US and as little as 0.5 percent when manufactured abroad.
This means huge profit margins for retailers. Paul, Armand and Maurice Marciano, the three brothers who own the upscale Guess Jeans, took home a quarter of a billion dollars over the last three years. Last fall, the labour department found that more than a third of Guess contractors were violating wage and overtime laws. In all, workers were owed more than $200,000 in back wages. When workers launched a union organising drive, owner Paul Marciano called all workers into a meeting. One worker recounted that at the meeting Marciano, who was born in Algeria, explained that he 'came to this country to make money, not to have someone take it from him. He said that before accepting a union, he would rather die.'
Not all garment retailers flaunt the mistreatment of their workers. For some, it is a downright embarrassment. Last year talkshow host Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line was found to be manufactured by sweatshop workers in Honduras and New York. As television crews watched, she and her husband Frank showed their concern for workers by handing out envelopes filled with cash to immigrant workers, and handing $9,000 to the garment union office. And last month, after consulting with human rights and union advocates, a group of garment retailers, including Nike and LL Bean, announced a new industry wide code of conduct agreement to curtail sweatshop abuse. Companies which voluntarily sign on will be entitled to sew 'No Sweat' labels onto their clothing. But this is a bit like asking the fox to guard the hen house especially since the 'independent monitors' will be hired by the companies.
The solution for immigrants is the same as for other workers: unions. Workers need the protection of a union to stamp out sweatshop conditions and raise wages. That is why some of the most important union organising drives taking place today involve immigrant workers in the lowest paid occupations. The United Farm Workers union has launched a union drive to organise 20,000 strawberry pickers in California, seeking a 50 percent increase in wages. Last month 30,000 workers and supporters rallied in the town of Watsonville, calling for union recognition. Garment workers at Guess are also fighting to win a union. Management tried to fire the ten workers, all of them immigrants, at the centre of the union drive, but was forced to rehire them after they threatened to publicise the company's anti-union record in court. If these immigrant workers win, all workers will win.