NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL
Forced Labor on American Shores
July 9, 2012, Page A18
It is time to banish the idea that forced labor and sweatshop exploitation are problems of bygone eras or distant countries. These conditions exist within America’s borders. On June 29, Wal-Mart said it had suspended one of its seafood suppliers in Louisiana for violating its workplace standards. The action came as an advocacy group for foreign guest workers announced that it had uncovered appalling abuses at the company, C. J.’s Seafood, and at a dozen other Wal-Mart suppliers too.
The workers said the company forced them to work 16- to 24-hour days, and 80-hour weeks, at illegally low rates, sometimes locked in the plant, peeling crayfish until their hands felt dead. Some were threatened with beatings. Federal agencies and Wal-Mart are investigating the charges; C. J.’s Seafood did not respond to The Times’s request for comment.
These workers are not unauthorized immigrants toiling off the books. They came here legally under the H-2B program, which grants visas to low-skilled seasonal workers in industries that supposedly cannot find enough Americans to do the job. The program has been dogged by charges of wage abuses, fraud and involuntary servitude, including in investigations by the Government Accountability Office.
New rules protecting workers’ rights were supposed to have taken effect in April, but have been blocked after business owners sued the Department of Labor and a group of senators from both parties shamefully voted to deny the department funding to enforce them.
Under the rules, employers would be barred from confiscating immigration documents and blacklisting workers who complained about working conditions and consulted with unions. Employers would have to try harder to hire Americans and cover migrants’ transportation costs and visa fees. Though the new rules do not go far enough (they should allow workers to change jobs if employers abuse them), they are a crucial step forward.
The reported abuses at C. J.’s Seafood are part of a larger story. The National Guestworker Alliance, the advocacy group pressuring Wal-Mart, said that in examining other Wal-Mart food vendors it found that 12 of 18 had received 622 federal citations since the 1980s for conditions that threatened workers’ safety and health.
Advocates say such conditions are evidence of the overwhelming pressure on vendors to cut costs to do business with Wal-Mart. But the pressures created by an unyielding business model are not just a Wal-Mart problem. When companies force suppliers to slash costs, corners will be cut and workers will be abused. Congress and the Department of Labor need to make sure that sprawling supply chains and profits are not built upon the systematic erosion of workplace conditions and laborers’ rights.