Hard Labor

The employees of Allied Fibers came to America looking for work and freedom. They found work.

But based on stories told by its employees, since opening for business in Houston in the mid-'80s, the low-profile Poly Sac company has habitually abused its employees, committing numerous health and safety and wage and hour violations. During the past year, under pressure from workers, regulatory agencies and the campaign to organize a union, the company made some attempt to correct certain violations. But in April, government agencies still found both safety and wage violations serious enough to merit heavy fines and financial penalties.

Full details of what has been alleged to be the company's most abusive labor practice may never be known. According to people who worked at the plant at the time, in late 1992 a group of young Chinese-speaking employees suddenly arrived for work at the plant, taking up positions at workstations alongside the regular employees. These workers never left the factory site; when not on the job, they were housed in a small corridor of private rooms in one corner of the building.

Communication between Chinese- and Spanish-speaking workers was difficult, but over the course of nearly a year, talking in monosyllables and sign language, the groups of workers exchanged names and bits of information. The Chinese workers described being recruited by a factory near their homes and being told they would travel to America for "training." What they knew of America was a long journey and the four walls of the Allied/Poly Sac factory. The Hispanic workers asked about the newcomers' immigration papers and work documents, required for employment in America; the Chinese workers had none. By simple symbols, the workers compared pay scales, which for the Hispanics began at the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour. The Chinese workers indicated they were being paid $1 an hour.

At first, their Hispanic colleagues assumed the Chinese workers were from Taiwan -- that is what they wrote in their letter to Laura Germino. But one day some of the Hispanics arranged a brief, private conversation between a few of the Chinese women and a local Chinese-American priest. Father Francis Chang, pastor of Ascension Church in Alief, says the women were frightened and mistrustful, and would not tell him much about their situation. But they did let him know that their homes were not in Taiwan. "They were from mainland China," Chang says they told him. "Definitely the People's Republic. Communist China."

In early December 1993, a government inspector at the plant on other business was informed by an employee of the presence of the Chinese workers, then hidden in the bedroom area. According to other employees, company managers got wind of the disclosure, and the Chinese workers were spirited out of the plant that night. When they left, some were weeping because they didn't know where they were being taken.

According to the Labor Certification Department of the Texas Employment Commission in Austin, any foreign workers in the country for a month or more would have to be registered with the TEC. TEC records going back to 1990 indicate no alien worker registrations for that period in the name of either Allied Fibers or Poly Sac. No one at the company will comment on the background, nature or circumstances of the employment of the Chinese workers. A few factory lunchtime snapshots, taken impromptu for a remembrance by one of their fellow employees, provide the only documentary evidence that the Chinese workers of Allied Fibers/Poly Sac ever existed.

Meanwhile, prompted by employee complaints during the past year, the Department of Labor began reviewing plant payroll records and investigating shop conditions. On April 11, OSHA cited Allied Fibers, Inc. and Poly Sac, Inc. for numerous violations of health and safety regulations, most of them "serious" and involving unsafe use of poisonous chemicals, high noise levels, failure to provide clean and safe eating facilities and inadequate safety programs.

Then, on April 15, pursuant to a back-pay settlement negotiated between the DOL's Wage and Hour Division and the company, Allied Fibers, Inc. issued checks to all its employees, covering two years (the statutory limit) during which the employees had been routinely required to work "preparation time" for which they were not paid.

Many of the employees of Allied/Poly Sac say the recent government actions, although welcome, address only a small part of the company's mistreatment of its employees. The coming of union organizers put pressure on the company to correct some of the most visible abuses and allowed for the first time orderly documentation of the workers' problems. But the company's reaction to the union campaign was harsh, involving a campaign of required anti-union meetings as well as the use of spies among the union supporters.

Jose Gustavo Orellana was one worker dismissed as a consequence of his activities in the union campaign. He and his wife, Maria Flores, who also works at Allied/Poly Sac, emigrated to America from El Salvador in February 1991. Most of the declared union supporters are Salvadoran refugees, who came in flight from that country's civil war. Some were unlettered laborers and conscripts, but others were university students, one an accountant, another a civil engineer. Jose Orellana had worked as an administrator in the Salvadoran government for 22 years, and Maria Flores managed her own restaurant.

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