A Tale of Exploitation

Clothing factory employees waiting for their delayed salary.

A local employer in the Lincoln Heights community exploits on employees’ labor and is causing a depression in their wallets. Employees can’t fight back due to economic and self paralyzing fear.

There’s nothing more economically depressing than an employer holding out on employees’ pay checks.

This startling news arrived to me after my mom and her co-workers’ began talking about their delayed pay from their employer in their workplace. Both my mom and her co-workers are steam stressers, workers who assembles clothing in a factory.

The factory I arrived to on December 24 with my mom appeared nothing short of a structure that resembled a prison. Upon our arrival, there was another employee who was standing as a guard behind a secured door. My mom explained to the employee that she’s here to collect her pay. However, the employee told her that the employer doesn’t have any more money to pay the workers. Despite the brief yet unconvincing explanation, we went into the factory where we met the rest of the factory employees who were already assembled in a single line in front of the employer’s office door – all with the same purpose in mind: pay me now.

While my mom got herself in line, I stood back and took a quick photo snap shot of the situation. Looking back at the picture, I can’t help but feel an uncanny experience from the photo. It reminds me of a picture taken from the U.S. Great Depression scene of the 1930s when local town’s workers and folks waited in line just to get a decent ration of soup and bread. In this case, workers are just looking for a decent wage to pay for their bills and other living expenses.

After I took the photo, I stayed in the factory for a brief moment and made some observations. I noticed that there were still about five or six workers performing their jobs at the machines despite probably not haven’t been paid for their work either. As I watched them, I began to question ‘why would a worker – or any worker, for that matter – continue to do unpaid work for a neglectful employer?’ As I’m writing this blog entry, I highly doubt it’s due to ignorance of them hoping to get a larger pay sum or trying to model one self as a loyal employee. No, it’s due to the fact that these employees are living in paralyzed fear – a fear that threatens them to stay in their job for the company because if they were to lose it, they are afraid they might not be able to get another job similar to the one outside the company to support their family and themselves.

Another reason behind their fear comes from their limited exposure to comprehensively learn and communicate in the English language. They know, without this basic yet important skill, they can’t get better jobs or get themselves out of these dead end jobs. Because of the language barrier, they have not been able to fully accustom themselves to the so-called American cultural system; they have, however, been accustomed to the other end of the system – the near bottom where all the so-called unskilled workers fall into due to their limited ability to understand the English language.

Although the employees may lack an understanding in the English language, they, however do not lack an understanding in being swindled by their employer’s recent neglectfulness of not paying them for work. Two weeks prior, on Wednesday, December 15 an employee reported to the police of not being paid on time and had the employer arrested on site. However, the employer was released shortly. Whether there was a bail or not is still unclear.

After the employer’s release, the employer continues to remain silent behind the reason of not paying all of the company’s workers. After a few days of the employer’s release, there appears to be no official phone calls to the employees announcing that the company was paying its workers on the day I arrived to the factory. The only notice I got came from word of mouth from one of the employees at the workplace. It turns out that most of the employees that arrived to collect their pay, only a handful of them were actually paid (however, not in their full payment) while the rest left empty handed.

Unfortunately, it appears that none of the employees have reported this problem to the Labor Department. However, there may be a reason behind the employees’ reluctance to do any such reporting to the department. The main reason may sound very naive, yet if one were to think about it as if one were in the employee’s shoes, one would come to understand that they may not have another place to work (despite not being paid – who knows how long since their last paid salary) because if the current company were forced to shut down, the current employees would have a harder time finding another job that’s suitable for their skills.

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