Big Box Exploitation

By Veronica Alvarado and Santos Castaneda

WarehouseWorkers2

Photo courtesy of Warehouse Worker Resource Center

The Inland Empire of Southern California, comprised of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, contains the largest hub of warehouses in the nation. Located near ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach and easily accessible to the rest of the continental U.S., the area is an ideal location for the massive warehouse boom of the past 20 years, which has transformed lands formerly used for agriculture.

Improving the warehouse and goods movement industry not only benefits workers, it is the key to reviving the region’s struggling economy.

Almost half of all imports to the U.S. pass through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Three-quarters of those products enter Inland Empire warehouses.

Unfortunately, that industry growth has not translated into good news for the predominantly immigrant, low-wage workers who toil in Inland Empire warehouses. A struggling economy, educational and cultural barriers, and the hyper-greed of modern American corporations have combined to create a perfect storm of worker exploitation in the region’s big-box warehouses.

The industry employs more than 85,000 workers who often labor under dangerous circumstances; they are exposed routinely to chemicals and pollutants, injury, extreme temperatures and much more.

Warehouses also often use an underhanded system of hiring many of their workers through temporary agencies. This “temporary” designation allows warehouses to rapidly fire and replace workers. The workers have no permanence, no job security, no seniority and no retirement program. They are forced to live in a constant state of fear of losing their jobs, and this way of doing business also shields the bad guys—those responsible for harsh working conditions and stolen wages. We are aware of “temporary workers” who have been employed by the same warehouses, in the same positions, for more than 10 years.

Warehouses keep their labor pool fluid, preventing efforts to organize or even to speak up. They block emergency exits to allow for the storage of more goods. They deny their workers water and bathroom breaks to squeeze every ounce of sweat from them. And, they maintain a complex payment system that would confuse even veteran accountants to pay warehouse workers less than minimum wage for their back-breaking efforts.

Slowly but surely, warehouse workers are beginning to shift the balance of power in the Inland Empire. Courageous warehouse workers have been taking part in strikes, rallies and civil disobedience, despite their fears of losing their jobs and even being arrested. Through our Warehouse Workers United campaign, we brought workers together to bravely call on Walmart and other major retailers to take responsibility for improving working conditions in their subcontracted warehouses. These actions have resulted in important victories, such as $7.2 million in damages and penalties recovered for victims of wage theft, a groundbreaking federal lawsuit against the largest Walmart warehouse in the Western U.S., and citations for health and safety violations at eight major warehouses that employ more than 1,000 warehouse workers, totaling over $450,000 in penalties.

When warehouse workers began to speak up about these conditions in 2011, Walmart claimed to have no role in the problem. As violations came up again and again, and as workers continued to speak up, the company has been forced to publicly accept its responsibility in the operations of the warehouses that store and move its products. And Walmart also claims to be implementing an auditing system that will prevent exploitation in its supply chain.

More can and must be done. Unless the big retailers adopt a comprehensive approach to reforming the supply chain, low-cost contractors will continue to conduct business as usual. For example, an estimated 20 percent of the goods moving through Inland Empire warehouses belong to Walmart. If Walmart were to adopt a responsible contractor policy—an agreement to pay a living wage, maintain safe conditions and acknowledge that workers must have a voice in any monitoring system—it would transform the industry and make good jobs possible.

Improving the warehouse and goods movement industry not only benefits workers, it is the key to reviving the region’s struggling economy. The Inland Empire is the state’s fastest-growing region, with more than four million residents in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the region also has one of the fastest-growing Latino population in the nation, and Latinos are projected to become the majority in the region by 2015.

By building the leadership and power of the Inland Empire’s warehouse workers and shining a spotlight on the retailers and subcontractors that employ them, we can improve not just the lives of workers, but also of our communities and our state.

Santos’ Story

By Warehouse Workers Resource Center

We first met Santos, a warehouse worker, when he attended a health and safety training in 2011. He was in his early twenties, and wore baggy clothes and a cap. During the meeting, he slumped back into a chair, knees swept to the side and his arms tightly crossed. He seemed bored and skeptical. Half way through the training, he said, “If we speak up in the warehouse, what will you do when we get fired?” That’s always a tough question to answer.

One Warehouse Workers Resource Center program encourages “peer leaders” to emerge among warehouse workers by offering them a stipend to run health and safety workshops. As Santos became more active with us, we noticed that he had an engaging way of communicating with other workers and thought that he would be a good candidate for the program.

“This won’t even pay for my gas,” he said the first time we offered him the stipend, as he tossed it back onto a desk. But, he snatched it up again as soon as one of us went for it.

Santos continued attending meetings and became active in fighting for safety at his warehouse. The same attitude he used to challenge us became an effective tool against his employers. The first public event at the workplace was a rally where Santos spoke during his lunch break. The moment he went back inside, he was fired. He came back out and told the crowd what had happened.

A few days after Santos was illegally fired, more than three dozen of us stormed past security guards and into his former workplace. Heading through the warehouse, we banged drums and blew whistles, rang bells, chanted and yelled. Let’s just say that our presence was really hard for anyone to ignore. We marched to the human resources department and delivered a petition signed by thousands of people demanding that Santos be hired back.

He was.

So, Santos—to answer your original question—that’s what we do when they fire someone for speaking up.