Labor Dept Does Something–May Be a First

Elaine Chao’s tenure at Labor hasn’t exactly been known for its aggressive treatment of illegal corporate labor practices, despite the inconvenient fact that that’s what it was created to do, and as the head of it, that’s her job. She has usually supported whatever lame legal excuse or maneuver corporate attorneys came up with to justify their clients’ behaviour, and been exceedingly lax in enforcing labor laws; when she bothered to enforce them at all, it was normally because lawsuits or outside pressure forced her to. So we are only too happy to note that DoL investigators responded to information from a small watchdog group in LA and busted a Target contractor’s Wal-Mart-style treatment of its janitors: wages below minimum, a 7-days/wk work schedule, hiring 15 and 16-year-olds as full-time employees, 50 and 60-hr/wk work schedules without overtime, non-payment of taxes, particularly Social Security–you know the drill.

Labor Department Wins $1.9 Million in Back Pay for Janitors
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE

Published: NYT, August 26, 2004

The United States Department of Labor announced yesterday that it had reached a $1.9 million settlement with a contractor for the Target Corporation after finding that the contractor had not paid overtime to hundreds of immigrant janitors who often worked seven nights a week cleaning Target stores.

Several janitors said in interviews that the Target contractor was doing much the same as contractors for Wal-Mart had done before an immigration raid at Wal-Mart stores last October – making late-night janitors work nearly 365 days a year, without paying overtime or Social Security and other taxes.

The Labor Department announced its back-pay settlement with Global Building Services of Newhall, Calif., after a two-year investigation found that Global had not paid overtime to 775 immigrant janitors who cleaned Target stores in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas.

The Labor Department was tipped off to the violations by a Los Angeles group, the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, that monitors whether employers are breaking the law when they use janitors.

“We investigated 50 Target stores, and we saw that janitors were being paid in cash, a flat rate with no overtime, no payroll taxes, no workers comp,” said Lilia Garcia, the trust fund’s executive director. “It’s a cancer in the industry; too many of these big retailers are using problematic contractors.”

Ms. Garcia said her group found that a half dozen of the late-night cleaners were only 15 or 16 years old. She said Global Building Services fired them soon after the federal inquiry started largely because state law bars teenagers so young from working so late at night and so many hours a day or a week. California officials participated in the inquiry.

Last October, federal agents raided 60 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states to arrest 250 cleaners who they said were illegal immigrants. The immigrants were employed by various Wal-Mart contractors, and as at the Target stores, they usually worked seven nights a week and were paid in cash without receiving overtime.

Labor Department officials declined to say whether they were investigating Wal-Mart or its contractors, although Wal-Mart has acknowledged that a federal grand jury in Pennsylvania is investigating whether it illegally cooperated with its contractors to use illegal immigrants as cleaners. Lawyers in New York have filed a class- action lawsuit against Wal-Mart charging various labor violations on behalf of what they estimate are thousands of illegal immigrant janitors.

Felipe Aguilar, who said he cleaned at five Target stores in Southern California, said in a telephone interview: “In my three years there, they gave me very few days off. And when I came back after being out injured for two weeks, the company said, ‘We can’t take you back. Someone else is working in your place.’ ”

Mr. Aguilar said that he worked about 80 hours a week, from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily, and was paid $525 or $625 every 15 days. That came to less than $4 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage of $5.15.

His wife, Claudia, who also worked at Target, said, “We felt bad about the pay; sometimes we felt rage, but we were scared to complain because we needed the job.”

In a statement, Global Building Services said that after these problems were brought to its attention in November 2002, it cooperated fully with the investigation and changed its pay practices.

“We are pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with the Department of Labor to compensate our employees,” Global said. “The company is fully compliant, and we look forward to serving the needs of our retail customers. We feel this is all behind us now.”

Uh-huh. How could Global Building Services not know that something on this scale was happening? Don’t they handle the paychecks? Didn’t they notice the discrepancies, the lack of withholding? If you believe GBS’ absurd statement, you probably also believe that Saddam was responsible for 9/11 and the Easter Bunny wears tennis shoes and delivers eggs doing an impression of Tom Jones singing ‘Delilah’.

And we must add that while we’re all in favor of the Labor Dept actually doing something it wasn’t forced to do, we must in fairness note that: a) a $2Mil settlement is peanuts to a company that’s handling Target’s janitorial services in 5 states–5 huge states–and is hardly going to prevent them doing the same thing again when nobody’s looking, so it is effectively little more than the standard wrist-slap; and b) the DoL has yet to charge Target for complicity. It was Target, after all, who hired GBS and then didn’t bother to supervise them.

Oh, I forgot–‘But we didn’t know!’ Yeah, right. Ever notice that if you spend 25 cents on paperclips that wasn’t authorized, there’s a note on your desk from the comptroller the next day? How is that Target can track every expenditure to the penny except what they’re paying a contractor? How come if a buyer overpays $2 for an item their job is in jeopardy, but if they’re paying a contractor $$$MILLIONS$$$ less than the minimum he should be paying his employees, this they don’t notice?

The simple fact is, if you cost them a buck they’ll be all over you like white-on-rice, but if you save them a buck, they don’t give a damn how you did it. Steal it, extort it, exploit it–they don’t know, they don’t care, and they’ll never ask any questions.

From an old Bob & Ray routine–Wally Ballou (Bob) is interviewing a paperclip manufacturer (Ray) about how he san sell his product so cheap (10 cents a gross):

Wally Ballou: But how can your employees survive on $1.15 a week?

Ray: Oh, we don’t delve into the personal lives of our employees. That would be a wanton invasion of their privacy.

Wally: But where do they live? You can’t rent a room for a dollar a week.

Ray: Well, I understand a lot of them live in caves in the hills outside town and forage for food. They make their clothes out of tree bark and I’ve noticed, myself personally, that they don’t wear shoes. I call it ‘self-reliance’.

That routine dates back to the 50’s. Nothing much has changed, it would seem.

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