By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Necesitamos ayuda de inmediato. "We need immediate help."
The letter from Houston, dated February 7, 1993, arrived a few days later on Laura Germino's desk at the offices of Florida Rural Legal Services in Immokalee, Florida. It was from Miguel Angel Martinez and Hector Alfredo Villalobos, two friends who were workers at a small factory in Houston. Handwritten in tentative and slightly formal Spanish, it began politely, "By these means, I greet you hoping that as you receive this you will be in good health." In two alternating, hesitant hands filling both sides of a lined sheet of notebook paper, the letter described conditions at the factory that sounded both bizarre and oppressive. The factory workers, Martinez and Villalobos wrote, were mostly Hispanic, and the company was run by Chinese managers who "treat Hispanics as if we were their children and they insult us as they like."
There were additional, more serious charges. The workers described what they saw as threats and intimidation, arbitrary firings, denial of unemployment compensation, denial of medical care or compensation for work-related injuries, all of these problems compounded by a language barrier between employers and employees. Workers, they wrote, were sometimes required to acknowledge or sign disciplinary "warnings" or other documents that they couldn't read or understand, and were subject to firing without apparent reason.
The Hispanic workers claimed they were even denied access to the lunchroom, which was reserved for the Chinese. Most distressing of all, they reported, the company seemed intent upon replacing the Hispanics with apparently undocumented Chinese immigrants who worked long hours and were paid, according to the letter, "$1 an hour and $2 an hour overtime."
Although Martinez and Villalobos couldn't have known it at the time, these last details pointed to a trail that runs from Houston to California and on to the People's Republic of China -- the apparent origin of those mysterious Chinese workers allegedly kept in a state of virtual slavery. And the letter's plea for assistance became the first salvo in an ongoing battle between the workers and the company, a battle marked by a bitter and thus far unsuccessful attempt to organize a union, charges and countercharges of "exploitation" and "communism," and U.S. Department of Labor actions against the company for unfair treatment of workers, unsafe working conditions and inadequate compensation.
Miguel Martinez and Hector Villalobos closed their letter with the address and name of their employer, as they knew it -- "7920 Westpark. Allied Fibers" -- and the plaintive request: "We need immediate help."
Martinez and Villalobos knew their employers as "Allied Fibers" because that is the name that appears on their paychecks. In fact, the business they work for is incorporated in Texas as two distinct companies, "Poly Sac, Inc." and "Allied Fibers, Inc." Company spokesmen describe Allied Fibers as the "employment arm" or "labor contractor/supplier" of Poly Sac, and Poly Sac as "the marketing company which engages in all the marketing and selling of the finished products." But the local management and personnel of the two companies are indistinguishable, and "Allied Fibers, Inc." appears to have been created by its owners primarily as an attempt to shield the parent companies from employment-related liabilities.
The finished products of Poly Sac, Inc. are polypropylene bags used primarily for the shipment of commodities (rice, beans, potatoes, etc.), and the labor process involves the fabrication, forming, cutting and printing of the plastic bags.
According to Texas state incorporation records, the president of Allied Fibers is Lawrence Chou, and that of Poly Sac is Jerry Wang. Both companies are apparently owned and operated by Jerry Wang, a California man who also owns similar businesses elsewhere in Houston and in California and Oregon, under the general name of the "Pan Pacific Group." The machinery in the Allied/Poly Sac plant is mostly labeled as made in Taiwan. But it appears that Wang also has good business connections in the People's Republic, mainland communist China.
The Chinese connection is ironic, as Wang's company is now faced with an International Ladies Garment Workers Union lawsuit charging that the company's managers slandered union organizers, repeatedly describing them in meetings with employees as "communists." Citing the slander suit (currently pending in federal court) and related investigations by the National Labor Relations Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, both Wang's office in California and local company officers have declined repeated requests for information about the company, or for the company's version of the labor-management controversy. The company's general counsel, Justin Ong, would issue only a general denial that his company was -- as he said it has been described -- a
" 'sweatshop exploiting the immigrants.' This is absolutely not true at all. Absolutely not true. There was a labor and management fight, there's no question about that. And there has been some information that has been disseminated which [is] not true."
Indeed, from the outside, the Allied Fibers/Poly Sac plant doesn't look like the smokestack stereotype of a manufacturing sweatshop. The company is located in an unremarkable, one-story, concrete-slab building at the corner of Westpark and Fairhill in a small industrial park like many others along the six-lane commuter road. There is no sign on the Allied Fibers/Poly Sac half of the 7920 Westpark building, which it shares with another business that banners above its showroom, "Affordable Auto Glass." Driving by, you might presume this is solely the location of a discount glass maker.