New Study Finds “More Sweatshops than Starbucks” in Chicago

Jeff Schuhrke

The study found that the most common kinds of retaliation were getting fired, having hours cut, or, in the case of temp workers, being placed on a temp agency’s “Do Not Return” list—a form of blacklisting. Employers also retaliated by threatening to call police or immigration authorities, and sometimes even resorted to physical violence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Ille­gal abus­es in low-wage work­places are large­ly going unre­port­ed by work­ers because of a real­is­tic expec­ta­tion their boss­es will retal­i­ate against them for speak­ing up, accord­ing to a new study released this week.

The report, Chal­leng­ing the Busi­ness of Fear, was pre­pared by Raise the Floor Alliance, which is a coali­tion of Chica­go work­er cen­ters, and the Nation­al Eco­nom­ic and Social Rights Ini­tia­tive (NES­RI). Sur­veys and inter­views were con­duct­ed with near­ly 300 Chica­go-area work­ers from a vari­ety of low-wage indus­tries, includ­ing ware­hous­ing, man­u­fac­tur­ing, food ser­vice and retail.

The study finds that among employ­ees who dared to speak up about work­place injus­tices like unsafe con­di­tions, wage theft, injuries, sex­u­al harass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion, 58 per­cent expe­ri­enced retal­i­a­tion. Of work­ers who report­ed legal vio­la­tions to reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies like the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Labor, Depart­ment of Human Rights, or the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion, over 80 per­cent said their employ­er retal­i­at­ed against them.

Sophia Zaman, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Raise the Floor Alliance, said at a press con­fer­ence Thurs­day that retal­i­a­tion has become so nor­mal­ized, it’s basi­cal­ly a way of doing business.”

Three quar­ters of our par­tic­i­pants report­ed two or more vio­la­tions of their legal rights in their cur­rent job. This is the def­i­n­i­tion of a sweat­shop,” said Brit­tany Scott, senior research strate­gist at NESRI.

Scott said the study dis­cov­ered more than 180 sweat­shop-like work­places: That’s more sweat­shops than Star­bucks in Chicago.”

Despite hav­ing wit­nessed or expe­ri­enced mul­ti­ple work­place abus­es, 73 per­cent of the employ­ees sur­veyed said they chose to keep qui­et at least some­times due to fear of reprisals.

Most­ly, peo­ple don’t both­er to fight,” said Vic­to­ria, an unem­ployed fac­to­ry work­er quot­ed in the report. After telling her employ­er about injuries she sus­tained on the job, Vic­to­ria was ini­tial­ly giv­en more phys­i­cal­ly inten­sive work as ret­ri­bu­tion. Then, she was fired. They see peo­ple speak up and suf­fer reprisals and think it’s not worth it.”

The study found that the most com­mon kinds of retal­i­a­tion were get­ting fired, hav­ing hours cut, or, in the case of temp work­ers, being placed on a temp agency’s Do Not Return” list — a form of black­list­ing. Employ­ers also retal­i­at­ed by threat­en­ing to call police or immi­gra­tion author­i­ties, and some­times even resort­ed to phys­i­cal vio­lence, the report notes.

We’ve seen on the ground that even if a work­er leader is well versed on their rights and knows how to report work­place injus­tice, the threat of retal­i­a­tion can pre­vent them from act­ing,” Zaman said.

Accord­ing to a recent inves­ti­ga­tion by the Chica­go Reporter, only one in four min­i­mum wage com­plaints in the city are inves­ti­gat­ed. This is part­ly because many work­ers do not sub­mit the required affi­davits nec­es­sary for an inves­ti­ga­tion to be opened, know­ing their employ­ers would be giv­en a copy of the affi­davit and fear­ful of the consequences.

Threats of reprisals are par­tic­u­lar­ly par­a­lyz­ing for undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers or work­ers with undoc­u­ment­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers, espe­cial­ly in light of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s anti-immi­grant poli­cies. Across the coun­try, staff with the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor report more dif­fi­cul­ty enforc­ing work­place stan­dards since Trump took office because undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers are too fear­ful to coop­er­ate with them.

Retal­i­a­tion is where enforce­ment breaks down, and address­ing it is what we need to do to restore rule of law to our work­places,” Scott said.

Though employ­er reprisals are ille­gal, Scott argued that the com­pli­cat­ed patch­work of enforce­ment frame­works makes it near­ly impos­si­ble for work­ers to get relief from retal­i­a­tion, and if they do, it’s too lit­tle, too late.”

The study found that when work­ers who had been retal­i­at­ed against sought legal reme­dies, 55 per­cent said their com­plaints were not tak­en seri­ous­ly and 66 per­cent said they did not receive ade­quate relief.

Under cur­rent laws in most states, includ­ing Illi­nois, the bur­den of proof is on work­ers to demon­strate that their employ­er fired them out of retal­i­a­tion and not for some oth­er rea­son, like poor per­for­mance or com­pa­ny downsizing.

It’s too often impos­si­ble for work­ers to prove they were fired out of retal­i­a­tion, because employ­ers can fire them for vir­tu­al­ly rea­son at all,” Zaman said. Plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty is all too avail­able to abu­sive employers.” 

Fur­ther­more, the report notes that often the only avail­able legal rem­e­dy for retal­i­a­tion is rein­state­ment and back pay, which does not cov­er instances where reprisals took forms oth­er than ter­mi­na­tion, or where vic­tims can­not or do not wish to return to a par­tic­u­lar job they were fired from. The report calls for more uni­ver­sal forms of relief like mon­e­tary dam­ages, as well as legal penal­ties for guilty employers.

A bill recent­ly intro­duced in the state leg­is­la­ture by the Illi­nois AFL-CIO could address some of the prob­lems around reprisals. The Wrong­ful Dis­charge from Employ­ment Act, sup­port­ed by Raise the Floor Alliance and NES­RI, would force employ­ers to pro­vide fired work­ers with a clear and legit­i­mate rea­son for the dis­charge, essen­tial­ly prov­ing that it was not done in retaliation.

Raise the Floor Alliance and NES­RI also sup­port the cre­ation of a Chica­go Office of Labor Stan­dards to ensure more rig­or­ous enforce­ment of work­er pro­tec­tions at the local level.

Ulti­mate­ly, Zaman and Scott believe that work­place orga­niz­ing is the best way to con­front the cli­mate of fear and enforce legal pro­tec­tions, and stress that work­er cen­ters can play a valu­able role.

The cul­ture of fear is on pur­pose,” Zaman told In These Times. Employ­ers know they can get away with abuse.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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