No free pass to discriminate against immigrant workers:  Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co.

No free pass to discriminate against immigrant workers:  Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co.

By Megan Beaman and Kevin Kish

Low-wage workers—regardless of immigration status—shoulder more than their fair share of workplace violations, including unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination and harassment.  Immigrant low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable—working under constant fear that if they exercise basic workplace rights, they will suffer retaliation that could result in the separation of their families; loss of homes and property; or return to violence or extreme poverty in their home countries.

New Image93 blurredThis fear of retaliation is based in fact.  We as advocates have seen it happen time and time again—and it overwhelmingly leads to workers staying silent, leaving employers without even a slap on the wrist when they break the law.

Scofflaw employers do not and will not stop violating the law if they are not held accountable for their violations to all workers.  Any other type of piecemeal enforcement, or lack of enforcement, encourages employers to hire vulnerable undocumented workers, disregard labor laws as basic as the minimum wage, and then fire them when they complain – all to the economic disadvantage of employers who do follow the law.

Earlier this summer, the California Supreme Court in the Salas v. Sierra Chemical Company case agreed, deciding that companies that hire undocumented workers (knowingly or not) do not get a free pass to discriminate against them.

In that case, Mr. Salas sued his former employer, Sierra Chemical Company, for failing to bring him back to work after he injured himself and claimed workers’ compensation benefits. Mr. Salas alleged the company retaliated against him for filing his claim and discriminated against him because of his injury. But a jury never got the chance to decide whether he was right. The company claimed that because Mr. Salas was not authorized to work in the U.S. in the first place, the company shouldn’t be liable for failing to hire him back. A lower court agreed and dismissed the case (giving the company a free pass to discriminate in the bargain).

The California Supreme Court said not so fast. On the one hand, the law says that people without work authorization shouldn’t be working. But on the other hand, the law says that all workers should be protected from discrimination.

In a careful decision, the California Supreme court balanced these two concerns.  It allowed Mr. Salas to take his case to a jury, finding that a company can be liable for discrimination even against undocumented employees.  At the same time, the court held that undocumented employees cannot seek a court to be hired back by the company that has discriminated against them.

This decision demonstrates an understanding of the reality of the California workplace, which is  increasingly made up of workers of all immigration statuses, including green card holders and naturalized U.S. citizens.  It also includes 1.85 million undocumented workers, who constitute nearly 10% of the total workforce.

Against this backdrop, the Supreme Court confirmed that employers cannot violate the law—by discriminating or otherwise—and then later be immunized from liability for those violations. The court recognized that leaving undocumented workers without the protection of the law would actually give employers a strong incentive to “look the other way” when hiring and then turn around and use their immigration status to ultimately exploit them.  That would be bad news for employers who actually honor their obligations to treat workers fairly and legally when it comes to hiring, pay, and non-discrimination in the workforce.

Mr. Salas will now have the chance to take his case to a jury, who will decide whether he wins or loses.  But the Salas decision is a solid win for all law-abiding Californians – employees and employers alike.

 

Megan Beaman

About Megan Beaman

Megan Beaman is a community-based attorney who roots her work in the notion that all people deserve access to justice, and who understands the larger struggles for immigrant and worker justice in California and nationwide. Beaman’s practice is founded on her years of advocacy and activism in working class and immigrant communities, and tends to reflect the predominate needs of those communities, including many cases of discrimination, harassment, unpaid wages, immigration, substandard housing, and other civil rights violations. The client communities Beaman most often represents are overwhelmingly Latino and Spanish-speaking. Beaman also works and volunteers in a number of other community capacities, including as a coordinator for the Eastern Coachella Valley Neighborhoods Action Team.

It’s time to clean up the Los Angeles garment industry’s dirty secret 3

It’s time to clean up the Los Angeles garment industry’s dirty secret

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On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan. Today, we know our clothes are still often sewn in lethal conditions in foreign factories.  Last year’s disastrous Rana Plaza collapse and a series of deadly factory fires resulted in much hand-wringing over how to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But 103 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we still have our own dirty garment secret, much closer to home.

There are some 5,000 garment manufacturers registered in Los Angeles County where an estimated 50,000 workers make clothes. The true numbers are almost certainly higher since many businesses do not report their employees, pay taxes, or carry insurance. Some L.A. garment factories are safe and decent workplaces where skilled employees make high-end denim, swimwear, and other products for elite brands. But in many others, where clothes are sewn for the “fast fashion” industry, the conditions are similar to those in New York sweatshops over a century ago or to those in Bangladesh today.

Bet Tzedek, the public-interest law firm where I practice, has represented hundreds of L.A. garment workers over the past decade, and their stories are sobering. Workers earn as little as two cents per completed garment. The pay, predictably, falls far below minimum wage, sometimes less than $200 for workweeks of 65 hours or more. Even in factories where breaks are permitted, piece-rate pay encourages workers to stay at their sewing machines for unbroken stretches. Musculoskeletal pain and related health problems are common. Over 100 years after workers were unable to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory because the doors were locked, some of our clients have worked in factories without access to fresh water or functioning bathrooms, where bales of fabric block fire exits, and where owners lock workers in the building during overnight shifts.

Statistics bear out our clients’ testimony. According to research conducted by UCLA, over 90% of garment workers in L.A. experience overtime violations, and more than 60% are not paid minimum wage. The federal Department of Labor (DOL) found violations in 93% of the 1,500 inspections of garment factories it has conducted since 2008.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In January 2000, a landmark law went into effect in California with the intention of eradicating garment sweatshop labor. Before passage of the law, known as AB633, factories that often had no assets other than a few sewing machines would close, move, or reorganize under a different name in response to legal claims, leaving workers empty handed. AB633 established an administrative process in which companies that contract with sweatshops can also be liable for a share of workers’ unpaid wages.

In response, the industry reorganized. Over the past decade, thousands of middleman companies sprang into existence to funnel orders from retailers to factories. These subcontractors create a buffer between workers and the fashion houses that profit from sweatshop conditions. Not coincidentally, this is the same subcontracting structure that now prevails in the garment industry around the world, surprising brands like Walmart and Sears when their production documents are recovered from places like the rubble of Rana Plaza or the ashes of the Tazreen factory.

While we assume that U.S. garment factories are well-regulated, my clients know better: their bosses simply lock the doors to workrooms when potential inspectors are seen approaching. And paying citations is a relatively minor cost of doing business in an industry where the vast majority of workers, many of whom are Asian or Latina immigrant women, are too afraid to file a complaint.

In response to the tragedies in Bangladesh, some companies have entered agreements to inspect and monitor the factories there. Here at home, there is no such movement. When the DOL found garments allegedly destined for Forever 21 stores being sewn by workers in L.A. making less than minimum wage, Forever 21 fought the agency’s subpoena in federal court, arguing that it shouldn’t be forced to disclose sensitive information such as where it makes clothes or what systems it has in place to monitor compliance with the law.

There is little incentive for the law-abiding sector of the industry to get involved. Fashion houses paying fair wages for domestic labor are not competing for the same customers as the companies using sweatshop labor. And organizing a low-wage, immigrant workforce on an industry-wide scale requires investments of time and money that have not been forthcoming.

What else can be done? Paying workers less than minimum wage is theft, and criminal prosecutions of factory owners could cause many to rethink their business models. Aggressive investigations by government agencies could begin to unpeel the layers of subcontracting that protect the reputations of retailers and keep the sweatshop system humming.

The simplest solution would be a law clarifying that retailers are liable to workers who prove they sewed garments sold in stores, regardless of who signed the contract with the factory or how many subcontractors were involved. Such a law would swiftly clean up supply chains. But it would also likely mean fewer inexpensive clothes for shoppers and could send more garment jobs overseas if we aren’t willing to pay more.

The question is whether we want sweatshops in our backyard. It took more than 1200 dead bodies for the Bangladesh agreements to be proposed. What will it take here?

 

Kevin Kish

About Kevin Kish

Kevin Kish is the Director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles. He leads Bet Tzedek’s employment litigation, policy and outreach initiatives, focusing on combating illegal retaliation against low-wage workers and litigating cases involving human trafficking for forced labor.

Is your favorite restaurant a sweatshop?

By Kevin Kish

Last week, thousands of workers at fast-food restaurants across the U.S. walked out of work to protest low pay.  Their actions brought rare media attention to the millions of people in this country who work full-time shifts – or more – without making enough money to meet basic life needs.

But paying more at a restaurant than you would for a fast-food meal is no guarantee that workers are earning enough to live on, or even that they are earning the legal minimum wage.  The New York Times recently reported about one of my clients who was never paid overtime wages for 60-hour workweeks despite working at a Beverly Hills restaurant where a meal can cost more than $500.  For one person.

In fact, in my experience representing hundreds of restaurant workers in claims for unpaid wages in Los Angeles, there is generally no relationship between the price of a restaurant and the way the workers there are treated, including whether they are paid all of the wages they earn.  At fancy date-night spots and at neighborhood lunch counters alike, workers get paid the minimum, or not, depending on whether the owner cares about following the law.  Many don’t.  A nation-wide study from 2009 found that more than 23% of cooks, dishwashers, and food preparers were not paid minimum wage, and a whopping 70% of restaurant workers experienced overtime violations.

One reason for this is that employees often fear speaking out about unfair or illegal treatment, for good reason.  In the Beverly Hills case, my client was fired on the spot when he asked to go home after working for 9 hours with a fever, and after more than five years of service at the restaurant.

Most people care about whether other people are treated fairly in the workplace.  But in a global economy, where your shirt is made in Bangladesh and your phone is made in China, it can be difficult to feel you can make a difference.

Restaurants are a good place to start.  75% of Americans eat out at least once a week, and when we walk into a restaurant to eat, we also walk into a workplace where we can make a difference directly.  A national restaurant-worker organization, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, has published its second-annual Diner’s Guide to Ethical Eating (also available as a free mobile app) with information about labor practices at restaurants around the country.

You can find out, for example, whether your favorite spot offers employees paid sick days, so you know your meal wasn’t prepared by someone with a fever. If it doesn’t, ask the manager or owner about it.  As consumers, we have insisted on healthier choices in restaurants, on calorie-counts and on fresh ingredients free of pesticides.  More than 10 million Americans work in restaurants.  We can also insist they get a fair shake.

Kevin Kish

About Kevin Kish

Kevin Kish is the Director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles. He leads Bet Tzedek’s employment litigation, policy and outreach initiatives, focusing on combating illegal retaliation against low-wage workers and litigating cases involving human trafficking for forced labor.

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