America’s sweatshops: The new and the old

Sweatshops have always been an integral part of capitalist economies.

Most sweatshops that serve the US economy are located offshore in places like Bangladesh.

In order to avoid working in these sweatshops, some workers pay human traffickers to help them get to the US.

Unfortunately when they get to the US, many of these workers still end up working in sweatshops or in sweatshop-like conditions.

That’s what happened to three immigrant workers from the Philippines who recently told their stories in a short video produced by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. These workers are hoping that their stories will help bring justice for others who like them have been the victims of human trafficking and wage theft.

Another group of workers recently told their own stories about working under the omniscient gaze of an overseer intent on making them work longer and harder for less money.

These white-collar workers are current and former employees of Amazon, the US’ largest online retailer.

They told their story to the New York Times.

Together, these collections of stories offer two perspectives on the modern American sweatshop.

According to the Times article, written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “(Amazon) is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.”

At Amazon, work hours are extreme, workers are constantly monitored by a sophisticated electronic data collection system, some managers act like bullies,  and little consideration is given to an employee’s life outside of work. Sounds like a sweatshop.

Eighty-hour work weeks at Amazon are common, and in most cases expected.

One former Amazon employee told Kantor and Streitfeld that she received high performance ratings until she had to cut back working at night and on the weekends to help take care of an ill parent.

When her work hours dropped, so did her job performance ratings.

“When you’re not able to give your absolute 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” said the Amazon employee to the authors.

Former workers also complained that their job performance ratings declined after they had to take a leave of absence for serious illnesses such as cancer.

Amazon regularly carries out arbitrary job cuts in which people with low performance ratings are fired.

Performance ratings are based on data collected on employees by the company’s electronic monitoring system and feedback from managers and other employees.

The Times reporters found that managers and employees sometimes game the performance rating system to advance their own careers, often at the expense of others.

For example, those interviewed for the article said that to protect their own jobs some employees form secret alliances and use the feedback system to snitch on other employees. Victims of these secret alliance may find themselves kicked off the Amazon team–sort of like an unsuccessful contestant on the reality show Survivor.

According to the authors, one Amazon human resources executive described the way that Amazon treats employees as “Purposeful Darwinism.”

The term sweatshop when applied to Amazon may be more figurative than literal.

That’s not the case for other employers like the ones who hired the three human trafficking victims interview by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

“(The trafficker) stayed in the factory to make sure I was working,” said Flor Molina, who like the other two interviewees on the video was able to escape her human trafficker. “She said she had brought me to the United States for work, so now my time was hers.”

“I was given only ten minutes to eat in the full 18-20 hours (of work).  I wasn’t allowed to take a break. If I took 10 or 20 minutes, I was punished,” continued Molina.

After Molina and the other two victims were able to escape they found other jobs, but they ran into another problem–wage theft.

One payday, Molina’s employer didn’t pay her. He went out of business and in order to avoid paying her, he moved, and changed his telephone number. He still owes Molina the money that she earned.

Molina and the other two told their stories in hopes that the California legislature will pass SB 588, which will strengthen California’s wage theft laws.

Currently, many California workers who win wage theft suits are unable to collect their wages because the state’s wage theft laws lack strong enforcement remedies. .

Molina said that she is speaking out about her experience because being silent only helps human traffickers and wage thieves.

“Silence is bliss for traffickers and abusers,” said Molina.

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