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Free Market/Slave Labor: L.A. Edition



Yesterday I talked about the California bill for a meaningful wage theft law. On this particular issue, the problem is not Walmart or McDonald’s. The problem are employers who rely on immigrant labor who don’t have an easy ability to speak out about their exploitation. But in these industries, especially the apparel sweatshops of Los Angeles, are not just rogue employers at the global economic margins. Rather, they are central to global capitalism, just the kind of employer we might expect more in Bangladesh than the United States. The apparel industry, which has operated on a system of extreme exploitation since its beginning, rewards employers who can steal as much from workers as possible while the department stores and apparel brands get off scot free. Charles Davis has more, particularly about Thai migrants to the United States. A brief excerpt:

Outraged that identified trafficking victims had to fight to stay, activists then fought for legislation that would grant future victims an automatic visa: the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000. Now those the government considers “trafficked” can work legally while receiving medical care and housing. But the problem has become a labeling issue. Extreme cases warrant condemnation and the “trafficking” label—the El Monte case was even prosecuted as slavery—but other low-wage immigrants who are victimized by their employers, denied money they are owed and forced to work in dangerous conditions, are ignored or even treated as criminals. “I have experienced workers coming forward, reporting abuses, who are undocumented and then get summarily deported after getting picked up,” says Martorell, “and, of course, denied justice and their back wages.” Those who aren’t immediately kicked out of the country have the option of working behind bars, scrubbing floors for 13 cents an hour in an immigrant detention center.

“I see it as a manifestation of what the U.S. has done abroad,” Martorell says of those who come here hoping for a better life, only to suffer even more indignity. We “talk about democracy,” she says, “then end up installing puppet governments that support the U.S. at the expense of their own people.” Those people then come here; a few are officially recognized as victims, considered the rescued prey of traffickers. But many more are deemed exploited, perhaps, but their victimhood not worthy of asylum. All of them suffer.

It’s to protect these workers that we need a strong national wage theft law and to stop seeing the workplace as a site to enforce immigration law, which empowers employers to exploit workers. Right now, there are situations of not only wage theft but slave labor in these sweatshops. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention from policymakers as it should. That needs to change.

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