They were making junk food in the junk economy and nobody dared to complain.
To understand how our nation’s refusal to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants, when combined with a refusal to pay a respectable minimum wage, exploits workers, hurts families and turns us against each other, look no further than the sorry story of Cloverhill Bakery on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
It is a story, told in Sunday’s Sun-Times, of Hispanic workers who made Little Debbie snack cakes for a modest $10 an hour. The fiction was that they were “temporary” employees, though many had worked at the bakery for years, even decades. They were “permatemps,” a label that reeks with an odor of exploitation.
It is a story, told by reporters Frank Main and Dan Mihalopoulos, of how 800 such workers at Cloverhill and the company’s bakeries in Cicero and Romeoville lost their jobs last year.
When the Trump administration sent the workers letters stating they were not authorized to work in the United States, they just didn’t show up the next day. A poorer paying job, or even unemployment, beats deportation.
It is a story of how a different temp agency filled many of those jobs, this time mostly with African-American workers, who were paid better at $14 an hour. When you don’t have to worry about being thrown out of the country, you’ve got options. You can command a higher wage. You can risk taking a day off when you are sick.
A 2016 study by the Center for Investigative Reporting documented how some temp agencies in Illinois — and only some — discriminate based on sex, race and ethnicity. In some cases, an agency may hire only Hispanics, who are seen as the most pliant. If a temp agency client, though, is wary of employing workers who may be undocumented, it may offer a workforce made up predominantly of African-Americans, who likely will be paid a bit more. But only a bit.
The result, as reportedly was the case at Cloverhill, can be a clash of cultures and self-interests in the workplace, with the two groups — Hispanics and African-Americans — feeling pitted against each other.
“The goal is to create a very vulnerable workforce — and to keep wages low,” a West Side community organizer, Dan Giloth, told the Sun-Times, summing up the problem perfectly.
A law signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner last September addresses a couple of the most objectionable temp industry practices. Agencies now must file a report with the state showing statistics on the race and gender of the temp workers they hire. Companies also must “attempt” to place temp workers into permanent positions as they open up, where the workers can then build up seniority and enjoy better benefits.
Workers, that is to say, should not be relegated forever to permatemp serfdom.
Stripped from the original bill, unfortunately, were a number of other worthy protections for temp workers. Most notably, Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Champaign, the bill’s main sponsor, wanted to require that staffing agencies give temp workers the same pay and benefits as permanent employees who do the same work.
At the heart of this junk economy is the precarious plight of undocumented workers. As long as our nation fails to come to grips with the legal status of this vast workforce of men and women who can be so readily exploited, the abuses will continue.
So, too, with the minimum wage. Kick it up to $15 an hour — for every worker — and the junk sector of the American economy will shrink.
Every worker deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.
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