Anka came to the U.S. in 2000 from Poland. She was 20 and moved to Chicago to live with her cousin, who had been there for about 10 years. Her mother had lived in Chicago for a while, but has since returned to Poland.
The typical jobs for new Polish female immigrants are babysitting or cleaning houses. Anka didn’t want to do either of those jobs. She tried to get construction work, because women in Poland often do construction, but contractors laughed in her face. Finally, she got a job at a car wash chain in Chicago named We Will Clean. She was upset about the working conditions but didn’t know what to do. Nor did she know what the laws in Illinois were or where to turn for help.
The place employed primarily Latino and Polish immigrant workers. No one was paid very well, about $6 per hour, but Latino’s were generally paid about 50 cents less per hour than Polish workers.
Workers were required to wear uniforms. The workers were then charged for the washing of the uniforms, which they were told had to be sent to an outside cleaner. In reality, the workers washed their uniforms along with the dirty towels.
At most car washes, a major source of money is the tips that drivers give to those who dry their cars. At We Will Clean, the managers insisted that all tips be given to the managers and not kept by the workers themselves.
Because the company knew it was supposed to pay overtime for work over 40 hours, workers who approached 40 hours in one location would be switched to another in order to avoid paying overtime wages.
One worker who was injured on the job was promised the “favor” of being “hired back” once he got out of the hospital if he would not report the injury. The worker’s medical bills were never covered by either the employer or workers compensation.
If Anka had wanted to report the problems in her workplace and had known where to report them, she would have needed to contact the DOL Wage and Hour Division or the Illinois Department of Labor for the overtime issues and the stealing of tips, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission about the discrimination against Latinos, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the workplace safety issues, and the state Workers Comp Commission about workers not getting workers compensation. No worker, whether an immigrant, community college student or busy single mom, has the time and information for filing complaints with so many agencies.
After eight months, Anka finally left this job. A few years later she started volunteering at the Chicago Interfaith Worker Rights Center. Eventually she was hired for 20 hours per week to help other Polish immigrants with workplace problems while she finished up her Associates degree in Fine Arts.
Anka’s first job was with the quintessential sweatshop employer. He stole wages. He stole workers’ health. He stole people’s dignity. And the way our laws are structured and enforced make it almost assured that no one will ever catch up with this employer for all the ways he has stolen from workers.