Occupational Health News Roundup

At Slate, Gabriel Thompson writes about a little-used legal provision that could go far in helping farmworkers fight wage theft and other labor abuses. A part of the Great Depression-era Fair Labor Standards Act, the statute is known as the “hot goods provision” and it gives the U.S. Department of Labor the authority block products made in violation of labor laws from being shipped across state lines.

Thompson’s story begins with Felix Vasquez, who works in the strawberry fields of Oxnard, California, and had successfully worked with legal advocates to recover owed wages from his employer, Rincon Pacific. According to the article:

In 2015, the Central Coast Alliance surveyed nearly 300 farmworkers in Oxnard and nearby Santa Paula: About six in 10 reported having experienced wage theft. The methods of theft are diverse, and Vasquez has experienced most of them at one point or another over his decade in the fields. Some growers simply don’t pay their field hands for all of their hours. Surveyed workers reported being required to work through required breaks, as Vasquez was; being told to show up—uncompensated—before shifts officially began; and being denied overtime pay. (Federal labor law does not require that farmworkers receive overtime pay, but they are due overtime in California after shifts longer than 10 hours.) Another common complaint was that companies regularly undercounted boxes during piece-rate harvesting.

Oxnard isn’t an anomaly. In a 2012 survey of 193 farmworkers in New Mexico, two-thirds reported being victims of wage theft within the last year. A 2009 survey of nearly 200 Oregon farmworkers was even worse: Nine out of 10 reported consistently earning less than the state’s minimum wage.

“There is just rampant illegality in agriculture,” says Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group. “And workers usually feel that it isn’t worth challenging the violations, or speaking up, because of the risk of being retaliated against.”

But even though the “hot goods provision” offers DOL officials enormous leverage, Thompson writes that it was “infrequently used and eventually fell into almost complete disuse” until the 1980s when officials began using it to clamp down on sweatshops proliferating across Southern California. In the last decade, the article reports, DOL has used or threatened to use the statute in more than 2,500 cases. Unfortunately, the statute isn’t often used in the agricultural sector — Thompson writes:

In 2014, the agency pursued seven hot goods cases in agriculture, which represented the highest number of cases in more than a decade. In Hawaii, the provision helped the agency recover $428,000 in wages and damages for Laotian workers paid just $5 an hour to harvest basil and other herbs. In California, blueberry workers won back more than $100,000 after labor contractors were found to have put two and sometimes three people on a single work ticket, the same practice alleged in the Oregon case. Hot goods was deployed in agriculture only once in 2015.

Read the full article at Slate.

In other news:

Reuters: Dasha Afanasieva investigates the plight of refugee children from Syria who are working illegally in Turkey’s textile industry. According to Turkey’s child labor laws, children younger than 15 are prohibited from working. However, the article notes that while children have long been a part of Turkey’s workforce, the problem has gotten worse with the influx of Syrian refugees. Afanasieva writes: “Syrians, and especially Syrian children, are undercutting pay. In the southern city of Gaziantep, near the border with Syria, a 30-year-old Turk who gave his name as Selim said he used to earn 450 lira ($155) a week as a worker, but after Syrians came he set up his own business. He hired children to carry fabrics, bring tea, and stack up cut-out fabric. He now pays each child about $50 a week. …Syrians say they earn between half and a third of the going rate for the same work done by Turks. Children are even cheaper.”

Minneapolis Star Tribune: Mike Hughlett reports that OSHA has cited a Superior, Wisconsin, shipyard with 29 violations and a proposed fine of $1.4 million after finding that 14 retrofitting workers were overexposed to lead. In fact, the agency reported that some of the workers at Fraser Shipyards had lead levels up to 20 times the exposure limit. OSHA issued Fraser with five willful violations for failing to assess worker lead exposure, failing to implement a lead compliance program, and failing to provide worker training on lead and asbestos dangers. Hughlett quoted David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, who said: “Fraser Shipyards accepted a contract with a very low profit margin and penalties for delayed completion but could not meet the schedule without endangering its workers. The employer was unwilling to pay the necessary costs to protect employees from lead exposure.”

Washington Post: Rama Lakshmi reports on thousands of laid-off Indian workers now stranded in Saudi Arabia. According to the article, officials report that more than 2,500 Indian workers living in labor camps are going days without food. India’s government is now moving to evacuate the workers, many of whom don’t have the money or required visas to leave Saudi Arabia. Lakshmi writes: “Many of the workers want to return home, but under Saudi rules only their employers can sign the papers to send them to India. Until then, the Indian Embassy cannot issue emergency exit visas. Swaraj said Indian officials are trying to persuade Saudi officials to waive this rule and are negotiating with the companies to pay the workers their pending salaries.”

Mother Jones: Kevin Drum offers an update on the impact of Seattle’s minimum wage hike. City officials voted in 2014 to incrementally raise the minimum wage to $15, with the hourly wage going up to $11 about 18 months ago. Drum reports on findings from a team of researchers at the University of Washington who have been tracking the wage law and its effects. Among the findings: the law is responsible for an average hourly increase of 73 cents among workers who were making less than $11 an hour; the number of low-wage jobs did go down some, but less so than in areas that didn’t increase the minimum wage; and the wage hike so far has resulted in a 1.1 percentage point decrease in the likelihood of a low-wage worker keeping his or her job. For more perspective, read this editorial on the findings from the Seattle Times.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.