*. Maria Flores and Chinese co-workers… workstations alongside the company’s employees. These new 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 Chineseand 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, $2 if they worked overtime. 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.” According to the Labor Certification Department of the Texas Employment Commission in Austin, 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. None of the company management will comment on the background, nature or circumstances of the employment of the Chinese workers. A few lunchtime snapshots, taken impromptu for a remembrance by one of their fellow employees, provide the only docu mentary 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 backpay 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 ployees 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. According to the union, various levels of retribution have continued to this day. The union has filed unfair labor practice charges against the company with the NLRB, accusing the company of firing, reassigning or otherwise discriminating against at least seven employees in retaliation for their union activities.The NLRB is currently investigating the union charges. j OSE 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. 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 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 or more of work each week. 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 12or 16-hour shifts. Because workers depend upon overtime for adequate incomes, company manipulation of overtime assignmentsincluding denial of overtimecan be a useful method of keeping employees in line. Moreover, according to the union, the company’s calculations of overtime pay were often inaccurate, with hours unaccounted for or payments only 30 percent above straight pay, rather than the time-and-a-half required by law. When the Chinese workers appeared in late 1992, the Hispanic workers began to THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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