In the last issue of the Green American, we looked at labor abuses in the US. We’d found that the Made in the USA label doesn’t necessarily mean the product was made under decent (or even legal) working conditions. US workers are often subjected to sweatshop-like conditions, sexual violence, prison-like working conditions, and other forms of exploitation.
Fortunately, there are green companies out there doing things right. Here are four ways that green companies are making products in the USA, and doing it under fair labor conditions:
Alvarado Street Bakery makes delicious organic breads in a holistically green manner. In addition to being organic, powered by renewable, and avid recyclers, they are run by their workers.
“We are a worker-owned cooperative owned and managed entirely by the people who work here,” Michael Girkout of Alvarado Street Bakery told us last January. “Our democratic workplace follows the “one person = one vote” principle, and we share our profits equally with all of our workers.”
RocknSocks not only sources their yarn from pre-consumer scraps, they also pay a premium to keep decent-paying manufacturing jobs here in the US.
“It can be done cheaper in other countries,” owner Misty Reily told us last week, “but we stay true to made-in-the-USA values, our growing to the size to utilize several mills has served to help control manufacturing costs.”
3. They Source From Unions!
Unions have brought us a number of wonderful things throughout the years — from weekends to medical leave, and fought to end child labor in the US.
Companies that source from unions support unions’ ongoing activism for worker rights.
“Justice Clothing has been selling union-made, sweatshop-free apparel from the US and Canada since 2003,” Eric Odier-Fink told us. “When our first employee reached 6 months employment, we re-formed into a coop to guarantee an egalitarian work environment, and that was when we joined Green America, then known as Co-op America.”
4. They Lift Up Vulnerable Workers!
Esperanza Threads takes the role of a socially responsible employer to another level, going beyond fair wages and safe working conditions. Although they make 100% organic cotton products, they say that social justice is the “leading force” behind their existence.
“As a project of the Grassroots Coalition for Economic and Environmental Justice of Ohio, Esperanza Threads works to train people with barriers to employment,” said Esperanza’s Sister Mary Eileen Boyle. “We work with the under- and unemployed, as well as recently incarcerated women and political refugees (from Burma and Bhutan) to teach them a trade and create good green jobs in our area.”
To learn more about companies creating opportunities for vulnerable populations, click here.
Make Sure Your Purchases are Ethical:
In order to make sure the products you’re spending your money on reflect your values, it’s important to look beyond the organic label and the Made in the USA label.
Purchasing from companies listed in the National Green Pages is a good way to make sure that when you vote with your dollars, you’re voting for both environmental responsibility and social justice — companies listed in the National Green Pages are screened in both these areas.
You can also check out goodguide.com — a website that rates individual products on their social and environmental impacts, taking into account the conditions of workers. Finally, make sure to read through the latest issue of the magazine for more tips on how to buy ethically products made in the USA.
If you know a young person or someone who has been young in the past 10 years, you’ve probably heard an internship horror story. If not, a simple internet search should fix that…or just keep reading, because you’re about to meet one.
Hi. My name is Sierra Schellenberg. I’m 22 years old, and I just graduated college. I’ve had an internship every semester and summer as an upperclassman, and most of them have been pretty close to useless. Though competition’s tough in this division, probably my worst internship was my last one at a news blog. My average work tasks there included stealing pictures from Google, finding news stories for the other writers to blog about, and blogging my own stories. I would have gladly put up with the more inane tasks if I’d gotten any sort of guidance for my writing, but this wasn’t the case. My articles were scantily edited (my early portfolio is riddled with errors) and forget any sort of help with style. They’d often ask me to write about topics I had absolutely no claim to expertise in, such as the 10 best places to get margaritas in the city (I’d never had a margarita in my life at that point) or a critical analysis of the city’s budget plan (my degree is in philosophy). Sometimes they’d straight up forget to post my articles—which actually wasn’t that bad when compared to my previous internship, where a staff writer would post articles I’d written under her name. When I told my supervisor I was getting nothing out of my time there, he consented to give me some technical training, which lasted 10 minutes.
You might be wondering why I submitted to such a terrible situation. Easy: every paid writing position I looked at requiring at least two years experience in the field. My ex-employers aren’t alone in taking advantage of the current job market and cultural climate to exploit young workers, as a simple internet search will tell you.
Employers often hire interns to work for little or no pay, often asking them to perform menial tasks that don’t contribute anything new or relevant to their skillset. And interns often comply, all in the name of a good reference, networking opportunities, or exposure, even when the experience forces them to go into debt or a 40 hour plus work week.
While I’ve since moved on to a much better environment (shout out to Green America!), I’ve been hoping to write more about the toxic culture of internships. So when my editor proposed doing a follow-up series to a piece on worker exploitation here in America, intern exploitation came immediately to mind. While not quite as vile as some of the working conditions imposed upon immigrants, internships are nonetheless a sector of the American workforce where exploitation runs rampant.
Here are some ways you as an employer can go above and beyond the legal minimum for ensuring a fair workplace for interns.
NOTE: While I do reiterate the law here, this post should not replace legal counsel! Read more…
Although women make up slightly less than half of the US labor force (47 percent in 2010), the number of women subjected to sexual harassment or sexual violence vastly outnumbers that of men. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 84 percent of the sexual harassment complaints received were filed by women. And 9 of every 10 rape victims were women in 2003, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.
The situation is far worse for working immigrant women, who, because they are new to the country face additional barriers to fair treatment. They may still be learning English, for example, and may not be well-acquainted with US labor laws.
(Check out “Fair Labor at Home,” the July/August issue of the Green American to learn how workers in the US are subjected to sweatshop-style working conditions.)
The case of female immigrants working on US farms aptly illustrates the vulnerability of all women immigrant workers to sexual violence and harassment, as detailed in a 2012 report released by Humans Rights Watch, titled, “Cultivating Fear.” The report is based on interviews with over 160 farmworkers working on various types of fields in California, North Carolina, and New York, as well as members of the agricultural industry, service providers, police, and other agricultural workplace specialists within the US.
Sexual violence and harassment seems to be a manifestation of power as the people carrying out these abuses on farmworkers are supervisors, employers, and farm labor contractors—anyone who has the ability to hire and fire workers.
According to the report, most farmworkers that were interviewed had personal experiences or directly knew others who had been raped, stalked, molested or had endured exhibitionism or vulgar and obscene language.
Patricia M., was twenty-one years old when she first came to the US. She did not have a work visa but was still able to get a job harvesting almonds. A foreman would pick and drop off all the workers every day, but on her third day, he dropped everyone off except for her. Instead, he took her to a remote field.
Patricia described him as “fat, very big.” She reported that he got on top of her and tied her hands with her bandanna to the hand grip above the truck door. Then, she said, “He took off my clothes and he raped me…. He hurt me badly.”
According to the report, after the rape, Patricia continued to work at the same farm. She could not leave the job because there was no other work available. The abuse continued. “He kept raping me and I let him because I didn’t want him to hit me. I didn’t want to feel pain.”
The worst part is that most females had not reported these abuses as they feared reprisals, and depend on their employers for their livelihoods. If a legal guestworker laboring on a farm is fired, she no longer has legal status in the US and can be deported. The situation is even worse for undocumented immigrant farmworkers, who may be threatened with deportation if they complain about sexual abuse.
So far, the US Congress has failed to pass legislation that would reform the existing guestworker system for agricultural workers, and it has also failed to pass a bill that would protect whistleblowers from reporting abuse on farms, regardless of their immigration status. So, many females suffer in silence while abusers use this fact as their weapon.
Four women who worked together in California, packing cauliflower, had a supervisor who would frequently expose himself and make offensive and degrading remarks about women. One day, they tried to defend a young woman—which resulted in all of them getting fired.
All workers, including immigrant workers, documented or not, should be entitled to the same workplace protection that workers born in the US have. However, several steps need to be taken in order to stop the pervasive problem of sexual abuse of immigrant workers, such as passing the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill (S. 1952) or similar legislation, which would protect whistleblowers and enhance protections for immigrant victims of violence.
– Krisna Bharvani, Green America Editorial Fellow
Despite the promise of certain legal rights to safe, healthy, and fair work conditions, sweatshops and slavery still exist here in the United States. As exposed in last month’s issue of The Green American, “Fair Labor at Home,” in fleeing from terrible working conditions in their native countries, many immigrants are flung from the frying pan into the fire. Seeing their precarious financial or legal situation, certain unscrupulous employers will sometimes lure desperate immigrants into their employment with promises of a better life, only to subject them to the very conditions many were trying to escape in the first place.
While in very sad cases employers use economic coercion, threats of deportation, or physical force to exploit their workers, part of the battle is knowing your rights as a worker. After all, how can you know when your rights are being violated and thus be incited to action, if you weren’t aware you had rights in the first place?
So whether you’re just touching down on American soil for the first time or have never left it, it’s important to get acquainted with your legal rights. That’s why we here at Green America have compiled a short list of some of your most fundamental rights as a worker.
A quick caveat: The information provided in this post does not constitute legal advice. It is merely a list of certain legal rights and certain resources that can describe your rights more in full. It is my hope that this post will serve as a simpler alternative to the labyrinth of links and pages that is the Department of Labor’s website.
There’s a federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour) and your state’s minimum wage (varies) — employees are entitled to the higher of the two. However, there are certain industries (agriculture, industries where tipping is prevalent, etc.) and positions (internships mostly) where it is legal for employers to pay their employees less than minimum wage. Some of these exceptions will be covered below.
Overtime for Hourly Workers
According to Federal labor law, when an employee works over 40 hours in a single week, s/he is owed a minimum of 1.5 times regular pay for every additional hour worked over 40. The week “need not coincide with the calendar week, but may begin on any day and at any hour of the day.” Federal law does not permit averaging of hours over two or more weeks.
Employees are not automatically entitled to overtime pay for work on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, or regular days of rest. Overtime is about the hours worked in a given week, so as long as the 40 hours plus is worked within a seven day window, the exact days worked doesn’t matter – be it Veterans’ Day, Christmas, or the day of your mother’s funeral.
Keep in mind that many professions are exempt from receiving overtime so make sure to check if you qualify before you go busting any doors down.
Overtime for Salaried Workers
If you make less than $23,600 ($455/week) you automatically qualify for overtime — even if you work in an industry that does not typically allot overtime rates. If your employer cuts your pay when you miss part of the work day, you’re not exempt. However, if neither of the aforementioned criteria applies to you, you may still merit overtime (unless of course you work in an exempt field).
There are no federal mandates requiring that employers allot their employees meal breaks during the workday, only state laws. However, not every state has bothered to enact regulations. Only 20 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia — require that employers to provide some sort of break for meals. Click here for a rundown of your state’s regulations if you’re lucky enough to work in an aforementioned state.
The outlook is even bleaker when it comes to breaks before and after lunch. A paltry nine states — California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington – require that employers give their workers’ intermittent “rest” periods throughout the workday.
According to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), in order to merit sick leave you must (1) have worked for your employer for at least 1,250 hours over the last 12 months; and (2) work at a location where there are at least 50 employees employed by your employer within 75 miles.
Those who do qualify are allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth or adoption of a child or for the serious illness of the employee or their spouse, child or parent.
But if the FMLA doesn’t apply to you, don’t give up hope! Many local governments have enacted their own regulations regarding sick leave.
Minimum Wages for Tipped Employees
Some states allow an employer to pay their employee less than minimum wage when the remaining portion can be made up in tips. For example, in North Carolina an employer can pay a waiter, bartender, or hotel maid as little as $2.13/hr as long as they make more than $20 in tips a month. For a full list of wages by state, check out the DOL’s website.
Filing a Complaint
Think one of your rights has been violated? For wage violation employees may find out how to file a complaint by contacting the local Wage and Hour Division office or by calling the program’s toll-free help line at 1-866-4USWAGE (1-866-487-9243). “In addition, an employee may file a private suit, generally for the previous two years of back pay (three years in the case of a willful violation) and an equal amount as liquidated damages, plus attorney’s fees and court costs.”
For safely or environmental violations, workers or their representatives may file a complaint or request that an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspect their workplace if they believe there is a serious hazard or that their employer is not following OSHA standards via fax, email, or telephone.
Protection for Whistle Blowers
The OSHA will withhold the identity of the whistle blower if requested by the worker. Thanks to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, it is illegal for an employer to fire, demote, transfer, deny a raise, or discriminate in any way against a worker for filing a complaint or using other OSHA rights. Remedies can include job reinstatement and payment of back wages.
– Sierra Schellenberg, Green America Editorial Fellow
First the good news: The DC living wage bill, a measure that would force certain big-box retailers to pay a living wage of at least $12.50 per hour, was recently passed by the DC city council.
Next the better news: Wal-Mart stridently objected to the living wage bill — actually issuing DC councilmembers with an ultimatum: kill the bill or Wal-Mart would halt construction of three of its six planned stores.
Why is this good news? Well, for starters, Wal-Mart stores tend to bring many difficulties into local communities, including fewer small businesses, poverty wages, and a higher taxpayer burden.
The bad news is the bill isn’t out of the woods yet — DC Mayor Vincent Gray, who has the power to veto the bill, is being urged to shut the whole thing down by other mega-retailers such as Target and Home Depot.
We spoke with DC Council Member Vincent Orange on why he’s taken a leadership position on the living wage bill, his thoughts on the possibility of a veto and his personal vision for DC’s economy.
Green America / Martha van Gelder: What kind of responses to the bill have you gotten from your constituents?
DC Councilmember Vincent Orange: I’ve gotten good response — [voters] want us to stay strong and keep pushing the living wage bill. We’re going to see if we can get a ninth vote of support so we can override the mayor if he vetoes it.
Martha: How hard is it to live in Washington, DC on minimum wage?
Orange: DC is the ninth most expensive city to live in – our expenses are 42% higher than the average US city. The housing market has doubled in cost. It is extremely difficult to live off of $8.25 per hour, which comes to a yearly salary of about $17,000.00.
Martha: You‘ve noted that 1,000 people are moving to DC each month — and that you want to make sure the people who were here during the bad times get to stay for the good times. What are your plans for making that happen?
Orange: By ensuring the entities that are coming to town are providing good jobs, jobs that citizens can utilize to purchase a home and have a good quality of life without government assistance – people shouldn’t have a full-time job and yet rely on the government to provide food stamps, and housing assistance, where your kids have to get reduced fare lunches. DC residents should have full-time jobs where you can stand on your own.
We do not believe at this point that Wal-Mart is offering that kind of job. What Wal-Mart does is they pay poverty wages and shift the social cost to Government and the tax payers of DC.
Martha: If Wal-Mart doesn’t represent your ideal DC employer, what is your vision for DC’s economy?
Orange: My vision includes implementing policy that consists of the ability to earn a living wage, have affordable housing, affordable health care, and quality education. Then our citizens can prosper. We would like more partners like Costco who are paying an average of $21 per hour. 84% of DC Costco employees are DC residents. That is the kind of company we want to grow and prosper with.
Want to learn more?
In the last issue of the Green American magazine, we explore the question of whether “made in the USA” means sweatshop-free. We found that it doesn’t — and Wal-Mart’s labor practices are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mistreatment of workers in the US.
How can you ensure your dollars aren’t supporting worker abuse? Subscribe to our magazine, sign up for our free e-newsletter, or read up on the “Fair Labor at Home” tips from the latest issue of our magazine.
Most likely shadowy factories in faraway places like China or Bangladesh, where workers are packed into small spaces with their machinery, breathing in dust-filled air and working 14- to 18-hour days for poverty-level wages. Anyone who has ever read about sweatshops knows that abusive working conditions are the norm in such places.
But they’re “over there,” not here in America, right? With our better labor and environmental laws, surely sweatshop conditions don’t occur on US soil?
It’s a popular myth that even the most knowledgeable Green Americans may believe. In fact, after Green America’s online editor Andrew Korfhage posted a link to a story on the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh back in April, one commenter urged people to buy “Made in the USA” to avoid purchasing from companies that do business with sweatshops.
If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, worker abuse—horrific, inhuman worker abuse—does occur in the US, and it’s more prevalent than you think.
“Fair Labor at Home,” the July/August issue of the Green American covers in-depth how workers in US restaurants, farm fields, domestic labor situations, and workplaces tied to national corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s are regularly subjected to sweaetshop-style working conditions. Because they may still be learning English or may be unfamiliar with US labor laws, recent immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are among the most exploited workers in the country, enduring wage theft, dangerous working conditions, discrimination, and even physical assaults.
In 2012, student guest workers from Latina America and Asia on J-1 cultural visas won a settlement against McDonald’s, which agreed to pay them $213,000 in stolen wages and $141,000 for health and safety violations the students endured in the workplace.
Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), a coalition of workers at US warehouses in Walmart’s supply chain, has, to date, recovered over $700,000 in stolen wages through lawsuits against Walmart-contracted warehouse companies, with more suits pending. The majority of the workers are people of color, says WWJ’s Leah Fried, with up to half of them being immigrants.
And farmworkers picking tomatoes for Wendy’s say the company isn’t doing enough to protect workers from abuse and assault, and it hasn’t raised its wages of 50 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes for 30 years. Almost all of the top fast food chains in the country have signed onto the Fair Food Program—an agreement spearheaded by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in which they agree to pay a penny per pound premium to tomato pickers and implement real protections for workers. Wendy’s, however, is the lone holdout.
The “Fair Labor at Home” Green American has more details on each of these cases. But imagine our editors’ surprise (not really) when, as we sent the issue to the printer, news broke that 7-11 was being investigated for luring more than 50 Pakistani immigrants into the country to work for 14 7-11 stores in New York and Virginia. Upon their arrival, the workers had to put in 100-hour workweeks (That’s right—at least 14-hour workdays.). In addition, they were forced to live in employer-owned boarding houses and had “rent” money deducted from their paychecks. In fact, the money that was left over was so miniscule that the New York Times referred to the scheme as a “modern-day plantation system.” The federal government is also investigating allegations that the 7-11 employers stole additional, “substantial” money from the workers’ paychecks.
The 7-11 franchise owners also stand accused of committing identity theft to give the workers false identifications and conceal their trafficking scheme. The 7-11 corporation did little to monitor the situation, even though its records showed that stores in two different states had several workers with the same name and Social Security number on their employee rolls.
7-11 stores in at least seven other states are under federal investigation for similar trafficking and labor violations.
As we noted in the Green American, “The immigrant rights movement is not about handouts, but about ensuring that every US immigrant’s situation is handled fairly and with compassion—and that exploitation of this vulnerable worker population comes to an end.”
For the next four weeks, join the Green America editorial staff every Tuesday and Thursday as we blog about worker rights in the US.
As a regular featured speaker at our Chicago Green Festivals, Solar Service, Inc. owner Brandon Leavitt enjoys seeing his customers from 36 years of Chicagoland solar installations drop by to say hello.
“We’ve counted more than a dozen of our customers at the shows, some of them clients from 30 years ago whose solar systems are still going strong,” says Brandon. We asked him to tell us more about his first solar installation and about his inspiration to start his solar company…
Green America: What does your business do and what are your most popular products?
Brandon Leavitt: Solar Service designs and installs both solar PV and solar heat and hot water systems for new and existing residential, commercial, municipal and multi-family buildings in the Chicago area. Today, our most popular products are multi-family solar hot water systems and residential and commercial grid connected PV.
What makes Solar Service green?
Brandon: Obviously, by selling and promoting the use of renewable energy systems we are a green business at our core. Also, Our solar thermal panels are made in Florida and Minnesota. The solar storage tanks are manufactured in the USA. The vast majority of our PV panels are produced and/or assembled in the USA. We have never purchased PV panels made in China.
We are a ’family friendly’ company where our employees’ needs for flexible work time are respected. We have always recycled our in-office plastics, glass, metals, batteries and paper. We pay our refuse hauler extra for a bin to recycle cardboard. Every year our holiday party is financed by the proceeds from the sale of leftover scrap copper, steel and aluminum from our installs. Our crew plants a vegetable garden each spring outside our warehouse. All our drinking water is purified on tap. Our sales director drives a company-owned Prius. And of course, all three of our company buildings are solar powered…both PV and thermal!
This Solar Service installation for HarvesTime Foods in Chicago incorporates PV panels as a part of the store’s awning.
Green America’s Campaign Director delivers nearly 10,000 petitions to General Mills.
Thanks to the nearly 10,000 of you that have so far taken action with GMO inside, calling on General Mills to remove GMO ingredients from their products! Yesterday, GMO Inside, a Green America campaign, delivered 9,830 petition signatures to General Mills at their headquarters outside of Minneapolis, MI!
Along with the petitions, we shared our concerns about GMOs with General Mills’ team, and the fact that every day more and more consumers are learning about GMOs and demanding non-GMO choices. Additionally, we warned them that as more states propose labeling initiatives, it will only be a matter of time before companies are required to disclose their GMO ingredients. We encouraged General Mills to commit to dropping their genetically modified ingredients completely, in order to get ahead of the curve.
General Mills prides itself as a company that gives consumers what they want. We need to keep letting General Mills know that what consumers really want is healthy choices for their families, free of GMO ingredients. (and if we can achieve and non-GMO food supply in the process, that’s even better!)
If you have not yet signed our petition, please sign today and share with your friends.
The Summer of Solidarity Tour is a new, innovative approach to building relationships between union activists and local organizations working for economic justice. The Tour is a 17-day, 15-city coast-to-coast grassroots program that will bring together Steelworker local union activists and community groups. The goal is to support local economic justice struggles and to connect them with broader strategies addressing unjust corporate power. The tour starts in Philadelphia, PA on August 17th and concludes in Los Angeles on Labor Day, September 2nd.
Workshops along the tour will include Creative Direct Action, Arts in Action, Organizing Online, Corporate Research & Power Analysis, Women & Workers’ Rights, and more. Renowned singer/songwriter Anne Feeney will also join the Tour, sharing her inspirational music that has infused hope and energy in many struggles for labor rights and economic justice nationally and internationally. Local groups that are interested in working with the Tour can propose other workshop themes as well that would help build their community organizing efforts.
For more information, to schedule an event, or to make a donation visit: www.SummerofSolidarity.org
As the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline undergoes its second State Department review, the House of Representatives took yet another vote to try to force the pipeline project to move forward. On May 22, the House voted 241-175 in favor of legislation (H.R. 3) to thwart the President’s decision-making authority on the pipeline and expedite construction. The Administration has yet to announce its position on the pipeline which would further entrench our fossil fuel-based economy.
This time around the vote received less Democratic support than past, similar bills on the KXL have garnered. Nineteen Democrats supported the legislation introduced by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) and one Republican voted “present” rather than for or against the bill.
The White House has stated that it would veto the bill were the Senate to pass it. The Senate might defeat the measure if it comes to a vote – yet if it passed the Senate there are not sufficient votes to over-ride a Presidential veto.
As reported in the Daily Kos, Oil Change International found that “supporters (of the KXL legislation) have taken six times more campaign contributions from the oil industry than did the opponents, a total of $56 million.”
Green America strongly urges President Obama to act on his commitment to addressing climate change and to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline for the sake of present and future human and environmental health. We haven’t a moment to lose in shifting to a clean energy economy.