A newly released mini-documentary, The New American Sweatshop, shows what it’s like to work in a Los Angeles carwash, and the picture it paints is grim. “For too long Los Angeles carwash owners have been allowed to operate in the shadows, abusing and exploiting their workers with little fear of repercussions,” said Chloe Osmer, acting director of the Community-Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN). “We are honored to have worked with Robert Greenwald and his team at Brave New Foundation to help bring these abuses to light.”
The documentary gives carwash workers in Los Angeles the opportunity to describe what it’s like to work in a carwash. They tell of a work environment that is dangerous and unhealthy, where workers suffer countless abuses both large and small, and where wage theft is rampant.
Los Angeles has about 500 carwashes that employ 10,000 workers, most of who are immigrants from Latin America. The abuses suffered by these workers caused some to seek help, and as a result, the CLEAN Carwash Campaign was born. The campaign helps carwash workers recover stolen wages and fight other indignities on the job. Its long-term goal is to build a union of carwash workers that bargains collectively over wages and working conditions. The campaign is a joint project of CLEAN and the Carwash Workers Organizing Committee of the United Steelworkers.
One of the main problems that led to the CLEAN Carwash Campaign was the many instances of wage theft in the carwash industry. About five years ago, Los Angeles community groups began receiving numerous wage theft complaints from carwash workers. The community groups sought help from local unions, and the campaign was born.
The campaign helped initiate legal actions against employers like Handy J Carwash. In June, a court ruled against Handy J in a suit brought against the company by a former employee named Tomas Rodriquez, who had worked for Handy J for 16 years. “The court ruled on the unjust and illegal acts that are so common in this industry,” said Matthew Sirolly, Rodriguez’s attorney.
The judge found that the company forced employees to report to work before they could clock in and work after they clocked out and that the company often did not pay time and one-half for overtime work. The court awarded Rodriguez more than $80,000 in lost wages and damages.
In addition to falling victim to wage theft, carwash workers also are forced to work with dangerous chemicals. One worker said in the documentary that sulfuric acid is often used to wash the rims of tires, but workers are given no protective gear to shield them from the corrosive effects of the acid.
Female workers are sometimes the victims of sexual abuse. One of the workers interviewed in the documentary described an incident in which she was groped and fondled by a supervisor, who she thought intended to rape her. She was able to avoid rape by fighting back against her attacker.
The workers who told their stories in the documentary hope that the video will shed light on the problems they face every day at work, and they want other carwash workers to know that they don’t have to tolerate abuses at work anymore.
“I want to send a message to all the workers in the carwash industry,” said a carwash worker activist in the documentary. “Do not be afraid of your boss even if he threatens you with deportation, it doesn’t matter. We are human beings and have the right to raise our voices.”