Immigrant Supply-Chain Labor Struggles Galvanize Walmart Activism

Michelle Chen November 21, 2012

Young Polish and Romanian workers on "J-1" guest visas who protested their treatment at a Pennsylvania Hershey plant last year recently won back pay from the subcontractor that runs the facility.

On Black Fri­day, as Wal­mart work­ers across the coun­try stand up against the retail giant’s labor régime, they’ll be in part stand­ing on the shoul­ders of small­er upris­ings that have popped up in low-wage work­places. Along­side the dis­grun­tled store employ­ees, var­i­ous sub­con­tract­ed ware­house work­ers have helped lead the wave of protests.

The inter­con­nect­ed cam­paigns reveal that what makes Wal-Mart so pow­er­ful – its hege­mon­ic size and mar­ket dom­i­na­tion – is also what makes it a sol­id tar­get for an increas­ing­ly mil­i­tant sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment of pre­car­i­ous work­ers across the sup­ply chain.

As labor activists brace for Black Fri­day, fed­er­al author­i­ties have vin­di­cat­ed a pre­vi­ous labor strug­gle involv­ing a major Wal­mart ware­house sub­con­trac­tor. Back in 2011, immi­grant guest­work­ers at Exel, a logis­tics sub­con­trac­tor, protest­ed against abu­sive work­ing con­di­tions at a Her­shey plant in Palmyra, Penn. As we’ve report­ed pre­vi­ous­ly, the guest­work­ers were invit­ed” to a hard labor stint through a spe­cial J‑1” visa admin­is­tered by the State Depart­ment. As with oth­er labor-based visa pro­grams, lax reg­u­la­tion had turned J‑1 into a gate­way for the impor­ta­tion of low-wage young work­ers under the pre­text of edu­ca­tion­al” sum­mer work experience.

The young Her­shey hires quick­ly saw their resume-build­ing aspi­ra­tions dis­solve into a night­mare of abu­sive work sched­ules and work­place safe­ty vio­la­tions. As one dis­il­lu­sioned young work­er told the New York Times. We are sup­posed to be here for cul­tur­al exchange and edu­ca­tion, but we are just cheap laborers.”

The Labor Depart­ment just announced an agree­ment that requires Exel, staffing agency SHS, and labor recruiter CETUSA to pay back $213,000 in ille­gal deduc­tions from wages to stu­dent guest­work­ers who worked in the Hershey’s plant,” as sum­ma­rized by the Nation­al Guest­work­er Alliance (NGA), a labor advo­ca­cy group that helped orga­nize the youth. It also requires Exel to pay $143,000 in fines for health and safe­ty violations.” 

The State Depart­ment has already promised to over­haul the J‑1 visa pro­gram with revised rules. The NGA notes that the set­tle­ment com­mits Exel (which has decid­ed to stop using J‑1 work­ers) to address labor abus­es going forward:

  • Tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for all sub­con­trac­tors and tem­po­rary staffing agen­cies on its sup­ply chain;
  • Pro­hibit­ing mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion of work­ers as inde­pen­dent contractors;
  • End­ing incen­tive pro­grams that block work­er com­plaints, where man­agers get a raise if there are no safe­ty reports; and
  • Pro­tect­ing min­i­mum wage from ille­gal deductions.

The exploita­tion of Exel’s youth guest­work­ers is one of the many shady sides of this low-wage sup­ply chain, which entails not only the col­lu­sion of unscrupu­lous employ­ers and fed­er­al agen­cies, but a huge net­work of sub­con­trac­tors that feeds into var­i­ous cor­po­rate fief­doms. Exel runs Wal­mart ware­hous­es as well so the settlement’s sup­ply effect will extend beyond Her­shey, accord­ing to the NGA, because it applies not only to this Her­shey-affil­i­at­ed work­place but more than 300 U.S. ware­hous­es Exel manages.

NGA Legal Direc­tor Jen­nifer Rosen­baum tells Work­ing ITT via email, this par­tic­u­lar fight start­ed with Her­shey’s, but the vic­to­ry extends to Wal­mart too via the Wal­mart ware­hous­es Exel runs.” Anoth­er rip­ple effect of the Hershey’s ware­house action is that, while cru­el, the lessons of their sum­mer abroad has had endur­ing polit­i­cal impact. Rosen­baum not­ed that many of the young work­ers who have since returned to their home coun­tries have been involved in stu­dent labor activism and/​or local Occu­py movements.”

Rosen­baum also point­ed to the Wal­mart con­nec­tion in a more recent NGA cam­paign, orga­niz­ing immi­grant guest­work­ers employed through a labor visa pro­gram by CJ’s Seafood, a for­mer Louisiana sup­pli­er for Wal­mart’s Sam’s Club stores that has since been dropped. Ear­li­er this year work­ers walked out, cit­ing sweat­shop work­ing con­di­tions that includ­ed non­stop shifts and wage theft. In July the Labor Depart­ment slapped the com­pa­ny with some $250,000 in fines, includ­ing back­pay for dozens of workers.

The strug­gles of ware­house guest­work­ers under­scores how eas­i­ly retail giants can dodge respon­si­bil­i­ty through lay­ers of bro­kers and con­trac­tors. Push­ing back against this régime of exploita­tion are groups like Ware­house Work­ers Unit­ed, which is devel­op­ing a cross-work­place vec­tor in the labor move­ment to encour­age ware­house labor­ers to see their work as more than just a crap job. Indeed, these work­ers’ con­nec­tion to a vast net­work could hold enor­mous sway if orga­nized to chal­lenge ram­pant abuse and anti-union cam­paigns led by Wal­mart and others.

Research by the Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project shows that the wide­spread sub­con­tract­ing of ware­house and trans­porta­tion labor has squeezed down wages and labor con­di­tions across the sup­ply chain – thus opti­miz­ing prof­its from ultra-cheap Wal­mart prod­ucts that sad­ly fuel the con­sump­tion of strug­gling work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties. The sup­ply chain comes full cir­cle under Wal-Mart’s just in time” logis­tics, bind­ing the pro­duc­ing, ship­ping, and retail sec­tors in an infra­struc­ture of oppression.

When Black Fri­day shop­pers line up for hot sale items, they’ll stand at the end­point of this chain. Hope­ful­ly a few will turn around and stand with the pro­test­ers out­side, adding a spark of fric­tion to the gears of Amer­i­ca’s cor­po­rate engine.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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