Immigrant workers deprived of their rights
By Nicole Colson | November 21, 2003 | Page 2
"IT'S AN unlawful conspiracy to systematically deprive people of the most basic human rights." That's how lawyer James Linsey described Wal-Mart's treatment of thousands of immigrant workers on the left-wing radio program Democracy Now!
In late October, federal immigration agents raided more than 60 Wal-Mart stores, arresting 250 undocumented workers employed as janitors by Wal-Mart subcontractors. As despicable as the government's scapegoating of these undocumented workers is, equally disgusting is the way that they were treated by Wal-Mart.
According to reports, Wal-Mart's janitorial subcontractors expected workers--mainly immigrants, both legal and undocumented--to work seven days a week, with just one or two days off a year. Pay was just barely above minimum wage. The workers were given no health or pension benefits and were cheated on overtime pay.
Yet if Wal-Mart--the largest and most profitable retailer in the U.S.--is found to have known about the workers' illegal status, the most it will face in the way of punishment is a fine of $10,000 per worker.
Now, however, several workers are fighting back with a class-action lawsuit charging that Wal-Mart knew about its subcontractors' labor violations. The suit demands that Wal-Mart and its contractors pay workers back overtime pay.
"This isn't happening overseas in some sneaker sweatshop in Asia," explained Linsey. "This is happening in our neighborhoods. One of our people--a diabetic, young guy, 18 or 19 years old, doesn't speak English--sliced his hand with the sharp blade that's used to strip wax off the floors. He was bleeding, and he was told to continue working, which he did.
"The next morning, when he got off work, of course, he didn't have any worker's compensation, no medical coverage, so he had to go to a hospital and literally beg to be served. The conditions are absolutely appalling." Wal-Mart management insists that it's done nothing wrong--and is trying to shift the blame onto "greedy lawyers."
"Clearly, hungry lawyers are converging on these illegal immigrants as if they were accident victims," Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's vice president for communications, whined to the New York Times. "If you are scrambling to make a buck at someone else's expense, who would you sue, an unknown cleaning contractor or the country's largest corporation?" But if anyone should know about "making a buck at someone else's expense," it's Wal-Mart--a company with a long history of union-busting and using sweatshop labor.