Hard Labor

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.

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.

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."

Miguel Martinez and Hector Villalobos had written to Florida Rural Legal Services because when Martinez lived in Florida, Laura Germino had helped him with immigration difficulties. He hoped she might now be able to let him know "what rights we [have] to be able to have them treat us better in [the Allied/Poly Sac plant]."

Germino contacted Houston's Central American Refugee Center, part of a national network of legal-assistance organizations devoted to the problems of Central American immigrants. The CARECEN staff felt that the Allied/Poly Sac problems required additional assistance, perhaps from a union. After speaking to several Houston locals they were put in touch with the Dallas office of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, because of that union's history of organizing immigrant workers.

The ILGWU, however, was hesitant to move into a very small plant in an unfamiliar industry and territory. Still, after some exploratory meetings with the workers, they decided to take on the organizing effort.

At the time Martinez and Villalobos wrote to Laura Germino, they were aware of only one other worker who shared their concerns and was willing to do something about them. But once word got out at the plant that someone was interested in their plight, several more workers responded to CARECEN's arrangement of meetings with the ILGWU. The Orellanas were among the first to take part, and soon found themselves in leadership roles.

About 75 people are employed at the Poly Sac plant, 61 of whom were potentially "qualified" employees, under National Labor Relations Board rules, for union recruitment. During the summer of 1993, the workers began spreading the word through the small plant about the union. They got a good response among the workers, although some were afraid to have anything to do with either the union or the government agencies in charge of factory investigations. And perhaps with good reason -- the union supporters say that once Allied/ Poly Sac learned of the union activity, it retaliated. Union sympathizers were reassigned to less desirable jobs, given split shifts and abrupt changes in work schedules and had their overtime hours cut back. They would be told to wait at home to be called back in to work, but the call would never come.

With the union campaign out in the open, a certification election, which would sanction the ILGWU as the official bargaining representative of the Allied/Poly Sac employees, was scheduled for December. Both sides began to campaign in earnest. The company began to hold regular meetings with employees to warn of the consequences of voting for unionization. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement offered a new weapon: workers were told that if the union won the election, the company would simply close up shop and move to Mexico.

The reprisals continued. Jose Orellana found his hours steadily cut back, and on September 4, his foreman told him not to come back to work until he was called. After three weeks without a phone call, Jose got the message. But when he applied for unemployment compensation, the company claimed Orellana was "still on the payroll," and therefore ineligible. In other words, they would neither let him work nor fire him.

Orellana hasn't been able to find another steady job since. His wife, Maria Flores, has been reassigned and has had her hours cut back. And, accord-ing to the union, their treatment isn't unique. Indeed, several other union supporters have received similar treatment, and in seven cases the union has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

On September 25, Allied/Poly Sac workers filed with OSHA a detailed complaint concerning plant conditions. Department by department, the complaint listed more than 50 allegedly dangerous or unhealthy conditions, including malfunctioning packing machines, exposed electrical wires, clogged and leaking plumbing, weaving machines that gave off electrical shocks, high noise levels and a lack of ear protection, poor ventilation, no protection from hazardous chemicals, and poorly maintained lavatories.

In apparent anticipation of the OSHA inspections that would follow the employee complaints, the company made efforts to clean up the factory. Injured workers were allowed to consult their own doctors, ventilation was improved, some electrical work was done, the lavatories were cleaned up and, in a symbolic if small victory, toilet paper was finally supplied in the washrooms.

OSHA inspections were scheduled to begin in November; in the meantime the company and the workers prepared for the December 10 union vote. Union supporters became increasingly identifiable by their ILGWU caps and T-shirts. For its part, the company taped large posters to the wall, featuring cartoon characters describing in broken English and Spanish what would happen to the workers if they fell into the clutches of the union. A vote for the union, said the cartoons, might bring a small pay raise. But that would soon be eaten up in union dues, strikes, and fines for those who refused to follow union orders.

The organizing and election campaign became intense in early October. Since most of the workers were on the job six days a week, the only time available for meetings was generally Sunday mornings. The company countered with mandatory meetings of its own, where supervisors would denounce the union. The union charges that one supervisor, Cai Nam Sinh, would never refer to the ILGWU or even the "union." To him, the organizers were simply "the communists." Another supervisor, head company manager Dinna Kou, is also alleged to have slandered three ILGWU organizers by claiming they were "involved in the crime of cocaine trafficking."

Throughout this period, union supporters were puzzled that the company seemed to know what they were planning and when they were holding meetings -- union supporters would find their work schedules juggled without notice just before a planned union meeting.

On December 7, an OSHA inspector visited the plant in the course of his investigation of the health and safety complaints. As usual when outsiders were present, the Chinese workers were herded behind the locked doors of their living quarters. Maria Flores saw a chance to help the Chinese workers, and told the inspector where they were hidden, pointing to a rear entrance to the bedrooms that had been left unlocked. The inspector went up to the door she had indicated but refrained from opening it -- he said he didn't know if the women on the other side were dressed. Still, he confirmed that he heard voices behind the door. (OSHA inspectors, citing ongoing investigations, would neither confirm nor deny Flores' story.)

Flores thought that she had finally found a way to help her Chinese friends. She told Eva Hernandez, another union supporter and the only one bilingual in English and Spanish, what she had done.

That night, the Chinese workers were rounded up and taken out of the plant. Allied/Poly Sac employees who saw them said some of them were weeping, and they did not know where they were going. One of the women asked for Flores, to say goodbye. Told that Flores was not at the plant, the woman asked that somebody give Flores three small remembrances. Flores still has two of them: a tiny bear made from hair and a Christmas decoration. The third, given to a supervisor, was not passed on to her. Flores never saw her friend again.

Three days later, on December 10, the certification election was held at the plant. Of the 61 workers eligible to vote, 52 cast a ballot. The final count was 28 to 24 against the union.

Miguel Martinez, whose letter to Laura Germino for help had begun the entire employee campaign, was at home ill from a work-related injury, and wanted to come in to vote. But the company disqualified him, saying he had quit and was no longer on the payroll. He has since been "rehired," but as a "new employee," beginning again at the minimum rate of $4.25 instead of the $5 he been earning when he was dismissed.

Among such small numbers, it was fairly easy to determine who voted for and against the union. Eva Hernandez and one other worker, thought to be union loyalists, allegedly turned out to have been taking part in union meetings on behalf of the company -- an action illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. Eva Hernandez no longer attends meetings of the union supporters. She has been promoted to supervisor.

But the company's victory may have been short-lived. Last month's actions by the NLRB and OSHA could be the prelude to further government intervention on behalf of the employees. The union says it is confident it will win its slander suit against the company, and that the NLRB will rule in its favor on the unfair labor practices. Organizers say they are expecting another election within the next year.

In the aftermath of the lost election, ILGWU organizer Betty Boyer reflected on what might have gone wrong in the campaign. She thinks the organizers may have underestimated the potential strength of the union support, and overestimated the willingness of the workers to endure the company counterattack.

Following the election, the union's supporters formed an auxiliary Associated International Members group under the auspices of the ILGWU. At a recent Sunday morning meeting, held in the small hotel room off Highway 59 that served as the union's makeshift headquarters, about a dozen AIM members gathered over coffee and cookies to discuss ongoing business. The walls were papered with union posters, snapshots of union activities, hand-drawn company organizational charts and a pencil-sketch layout of the Allied/Poly Sac factory. In one corner, an old computer sat on a table amidst a stack of papers and files.

The meeting was late getting started, because several members worked the Saturday late shift at the plant. A couple of others called to say they couldn't make it because of family emergencies. While the adults talked, a few small children played and whispered in the hallway.

After a few minutes of joking and gossip, followed by an opening prayer, Jose Orellana quietly took charge of the meeting. He introduced a couple of visitors, who were greeted with polite applause, and reviewed ongoing business. The meeting began with a discussion of immigration matters and tentative plans for a fund-raising party.

These administrative matters soon gave way to more immediate concerns. In mid-May, OSHA issued a report and fined the company more than $28,000 for health and safety violations. And on Friday, the workers had been unexpectedly issued second paychecks, which appeared to be various amounts of back pay. A union organizer had spent much of Friday night and Saturday talking to workers, trying to figure out what the payment was for and how it had been calculated. Most had received payments of $105.

Supervisors had offered differing explanations: some workers were told the money was back pay, some that it was due to an accounting error, one that it was a "bonus." But the NLRB was mentioned, and workers were required to sign a release form in order to get the check. One worker initially refused to sign, and was called into a room, warned not to "make trouble" and told to sign the form.

A copy of the form confirmed that it was what the union feared: a waiver of rights to any future litigation over back pay. The Wage and Hour Division of the NLRB told the union the payments were based on a settlement reached between the Department of Labor and the company over unpaid "preparation time," and that everyone in the plant got a check. There was no word on what the workers insist was unpaid or underpaid back overtime.

The meeting began to break up as the AIM officers said they would continue to look into the matter, among the other problems. One young man came up to union organizer Andy Garza and explained with an embarrassed grin that he thought he needed help. He had been out sick with a work-related injury and had received some correspondence in English, a language he can't read, from the company's insurance firm. He had asked a friend he thought was more fluent in English, and the friend had told him it was a doctor bill for his injury. After he had torn it up in anger, another friend had informed him that the letter appeared to be a workman's compensation check in the amount of $167.

Everybody in the room, including the young man telling his story, laughed out loud. Garza smiled and told him he would do what he could.

On the whole the workers seem relaxed, calm and confident, perhaps heartened by recent OSHA and NLRB actions. Or perhaps after more than a year of persistence they are simply accustomed to thinking of their fight as being for the long term. It may be months before they win another battle, or can even hold another election.

But however the regulatory agencies and the courts react, despite their setbacks the union supporters seem surprisingly confident and united. They say they lost a few supporters immediately after the vote, but they've gained back more in the aftermath. Jose Orellana and Maria Flores are asked how they've kept up their spirits in the aftermath of the election defeat and their difficult personal circumstances. They smile, but they seem a little puzzled, as if the question is beside the point. They answer that they are simply doing what they must do, including telling their story to anyone who will listen. "We need help," they say. "We need some strong help.


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