Hard Labor

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

Like most Central American immigrants, they took work where they could find it. Within a year, that work took them to Allied Fibers/Poly Sac. At a minimum wage of $4.25 an hour each could earn, on straight pay, $8,840 year, or together a gross of $17,680 -- still hardly enough to support themselves and their youngest son, still living at home. At minimum wage, the workers describe a "good job" as one that provides at least six days of work or more.

As a rule, minimum wage workers rely on second jobs or overtime to piece together a living wage, and when the overtime was available, the Orellanas worked 12- or 16-hour shifts. Because workers depend upon overtime for adequate incomes, company manipulation of overtime assignments -- including denial of overtime -- can be a useful method of keeping employees in line.

When the Chinese workers appeared in late 1992, the Hispanic workers began to fear not just for their overtime, but for their jobs. At first it appeared that the Chinese workers had been brought in to replace them, or to at least drive wages down. But as Jose and Maria began to learn more about their new co-workers, it became impossible for them to feel anything but compassion for the newcomers. Looking over the photographs of four Chinese women whom she had befriended, Maria said simply, "I loved them and I also felt sorry for them, and the manner in which they were being treated."

The Orellanas are loyal and outspoken union supporters, but they're reluctant to discuss current conditions at the factory, saying only that in the wake of the labor/management disputes, the atmosphere has been "tense."

But speaking through a translator, they became quite animated in speaking of their friendship with the Chinese workers and the conditions under which they had labored. They spoke of exchanging names by pointing at each other in turn, and of trying to develop a simple sign language that would work to exchange basic information.

Even in normal circumstances there were only one or two people in the plant who were bilingual in English and Spanish -- managers would give orders to a bilingual secretary, who would translate for the workers. No one could speak both Chinese and Spanish, so the communication between the two immigrant groups was halting and difficult. Jose described how fearful the Chinese workers were of their bosses, how afraid they were to do or say something that might be forbidden. One day during a break he bought two sodas from a vending machine, hoping to share one with his new Chinese friend, whom he knew only as "Li." But Li, afraid that drinking the soda was forbidden, kept refusing the offer, peering in all directions for signs of a supervisor. Jose insisted. Finally Li accepted the soda, but he would not drink it in plain sight. Retelling the story, Jose crouched behind the table where we talked, miming Li's fear as, in order to drink the soda yet remain unseen, he ducked down behind a pile of shop materials stored in the plant yard.

Maria's tales are more harrowing. Confined to the plant, she said, the Chinese workers were at the mercy of their employers and afraid to make minimal requests, even for medical attention. She recalled one young Chinese man's injuring himself on a machine, and continuing to work as blood streamed down his leg.

Chemical fumes and dust filled the factory air, and as documented in recent OSHA citations, workers either were not provided with proper, fitted respirators or were not instructed in their use. Maria herself has suffered from respiratory problems she believes are a consequence of the chemical fumes and dust, once missing three weeks of work because of illness. She says such illnesses, often severe, as well as skin inflammations and rashes from contact with the chemicals, are quite common in the plant.

According to Maria, one of the Chinese women developed an open sore on her hand from repeated contact with the chemicals used at her machine, and a bright red rash ran from the ulceration up to her shoulder. Soon she was too sick to work, and was confined to her quarters for a week. When the woman finally returned to her machine, she was required to work a week of 16-hour days to make up for the time she had lost.

Frustrated at their inability to talk directly with the Chinese workers, the Hispanic workers finally went to Father Francis Chang. Unfortunately, the priest was able to discover little more than the Hispanic workers already knew. Aside from his discovery of their mainland China origins, he learned little. The workers refused to discuss their situations at the factory with him.

"They say they are not [treated badly], they are okay," Father Chang recalled. "But maybe they don't know us, or the union people, [and] they fear for themselves. They come from a totalitarian regime where workers don't have much to say. So I suspect these ladies were prudent -- and felt they didn't know who these people are -- if they did something the bosses didn't like, they suffer the consequences."

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