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July 13, 2005

Why Janitors Need Unions

Reprinted From Confined Space

How many times have you had conversations with the obnoxious brother-in-law or naive acquaintance the included the sentence "Oh, unions were needed a long time ago, but not these days." Well, show them today's NY Times.

We have laws in this country, right? Laws that force employers to pay overtime.
From the age of 14, Isaias Garcia cleaned office buildings, waxing floors and scrubbing bathrooms, as long as 16 hours a day.

For the first 40 hours a week, he says, he was paid under the name Ramon Caballero, and for the next 40 hours as Iziqueil Gonzalez. The cleaning company's managers used these names of former employees, he says, to avoid paying him time-and-a-half.
This is the situation for workers who clean our buildings at the beginning of the 21st century.
Mr. Garcia is part of a large and largely unnoticed group of workers - the nation's 2.3 million janitors - employed in an industry in which violations of wage laws and other laws are all too common, say workers, immigrants' advocates and even cleaning company executives.

Janitors are denied overtime pay, classified improperly as independent contractors, locked in the stores overnight and forced to work their first two weeks unpaid, based on dozens of interviews and numerous lawsuits and government enforcement actions. In some cities, immigrant workers are induced to buy franchises for $10,000 with promises of striking it rich, though earnings often fall short of the promises and franchises are sometimes simply stripped away.

They get away with it because they hire undocumented immigrants who are easily intimidated and often not knowledgable about their legal rights.

Happily, the Service Employees International Union is organizing janitors in the major cities of this country, but there's a long way to go.

Although many janitors in New York, Los Angeles and other cities earn $10, $12, even $16 an hour in unionized jobs in big office towers, hundreds of thousands of janitors work in restaurants, supermarkets and shopping malls for a fraction of that pay. Some of the nation's biggest companies have agreed to multimillion-dollar settlements in recent months after complaints about janitorial practices.

SEIU has brought many of these lawsuits in an effort to improve janitors' pay and working conditions, and to pressure the government to step up enforcement of labor laws.

That union asserts that more government enforcement is needed, but enforcement is problematic. Janitors often work late at night, with a few workers here and there, and government officials are sometimes reluctant to pursue wage violations involving illegal immigrants. Immigration officials and labor officials at the federal and state levels say they are seeking to crack down on violations, but there are fewer wage-and-hour investigators than there were five years ago.

Posted by Jordan Barab at July 13, 2005 07:26 AM