Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, March 08, 2007

  The Pentagon's sweatshop

The arrest of hundreds of illegal aliens at the Michael Bianco factory in New Bedford, and of the factory owner who was fully complicit in employing them, has gotten a lot of attention in the national news media. For the most part, however, only local journalists have shown any interest in these other aspects of the case:

  • The workplace rules and the conditions at the factory qualify it as a sweatshop

  • The factory's main contract was with the Defense Department

  • The Army must have known about the nineteenth-century like factory conditions, and the employment of illegal aliens, because it maintained an office at the factory

Though the raid at the Massachusetts leather factory has evoked plenty of comment around the country, especially from immigrant-bashers, the DoD has remained almost silent about its role in permitting this to continue for years. And what little it has said is almost certainly false.

At Why are we back in Iraq?, tas noticed some remarkable information in today's article at the Providence Journal (h/t to NewsHog).

ICE agents also arrested the company’s owner, Francesco Insolia, and his top three managers on charges they deliberately recruited and exploited illegal immigrants to help meet the demands of their more than $170 million in federal Department of Defense contracts.

The company manufactures military backpacks and protective gear for U.S. forces. A spokesman for the U.S. Army Soldiers System [sic] Center in Natick, Mass., which oversees the work, said that a Department of Defense inspector maintains an office at the plant, but was unaware that any of the workers were undocumented.

Think how it might be possible for a DoD inspector on site to be unaware of the vast numbers of 'undocumented' workers. At first blush, you would think the inspector's office for Army Soldier Systems was on site for its purpose of quality control, i.e. to permit inspection of the actual process of manufacturing the gear. And in fact...

According to a spokesman for the U.S. Army Soldiers System [sic] Center in Natick, Mass., a representative from the Department of Defense has an “on-site” office at the plant, where he is charged with inspecting all of the gear that is shipped to the military.

Well, there it is. So how do you manage to do the inspecting without meeting the workers or observing the conditions in the factory?

Or if, like Major Major Major, you prefer instead to spend all your time holed up out of sight—perhaps have the gear tossed over the transom for inspection—then I still have to wonder, how do you get into your office without crossing the parking lot and hearing the banter of illegal aliens during shift changes? From the ProJo again:

The spokesman, Jerry Whitaker, said the contract language spells out that it is the manufacturer’s responsibility — not the Army’s — to ensure that undocumented immigrants are not employed at the plant.

He also said he does not know whether Michael Bianco Inc. will continue to hold the contract to make the vests and backpacks.

Aha, that is how it is done—by knowing nothing and sticking to your story. The spokesman may have been willing to speak to the ProJo reporter, by necessity, but he's not releasing any statements on behalf of the Soldier Systems Center about the whole dreary mess. You'd have thought the Army didn't have any explaining to do.

An Army spokesman did not return a call seeking comment about the status of the company's contracts.

Except that there's a whole lot of explaining to do, and not just or primarily about the hiring of undocumented workers. That's pretty trivial, actually, in comparison to the factory's punitive work rules that resemble conditions prevailing in the US a full century ago. Here is the ProJo article from Wednesday:

The affidavits allege that Insolia, 50, of Pembroke, Mass., "intentionally seeks out illegal aliens because they are more desperate to find employment and are thus more likely to endure severe workplace conditions he has imposed."

Those conditions allegedly include "docking of pay by 15 minutes for every minute an employee is late; fining employees $20 for spending more than 2 minutes in the restroom and firing for a subsequent infraction; providing one roll of toilet paper per restroom stall per day, typically resulting in the absence of toilet paper after only 40 minutes per day; fining employees $20 for leaving (the) work area before break bell sounds; and fining employees $20 for talking while working and firing for a subsequent infraction."

Most of these workers, you won't be surprised to learn, are women. This post today by Meteor Blades resonates.

The Providence CBS affiliate WPRI adds more details:

Investigators said the illegal worker paid a steep price for their jobs: dingy conditions and onerous fines, including a $20 charge for talking while working. Some were forced to work double shifts on the lines of machines for stitching military backpacks and safety vests.

Sullivan compared the scene to sweatshops from the early 1900s.

"They were given no options. It's either here, or the risk of no income at all," he said. "Clearly, they were exploited because of the fact they were here illegally."...

Jasmine Mendoza, a friend of one detainee, told WPRI that the company exploited its workers, penalizing them if they took a bathroom break longer than two minutes. "They give you a fine of twenty dollars, or fifty dollars second time," she said....

Social worker Helena Marques criticized the use of illegal workers while at the same time receiving government contracts. "These big companies are making a lot of money and exploiting the undocumented communities," she said.

Was this war in Iraq about freedom? Somebody remind me please, I get more confused with every passing day.

Ah, but never you mind, there's finally some good news this evening, America:

A Department of Defense agency is suspending the New Bedford leather maker raided by immigration officials this week from future contracts. A spokeswoman with the Defense Logistics Agency says there have been no changes, however, to their current $83 million contract with Michael Bianco Incorporated.

I'm sure that will shake up the sweatshop management.

From Unbossed

(Update): In the comments on this crosspost at Unbossed DCvote pointed me toward this study by UNITE HERE, Conduct Unbecoming: Sweatshops and the U.S. Military Uniform Industry. Dating from just last year, it documents in factory after factory supplying the US military (though not in the leather factory of this story) illegal practices, harrassment of workers, and dangerous work conditions that closely resemble what was uncovered in New Bedford.

This is a longstanding issue. In 2005, UNITE HERE published an expose of the conditions of employment at one military supplier: A Disgrace to the Uniform: Sweatshop conditions at American Power Source. And in 1999, a cover story at Mother Jones, An American Sweatshop, exposed conditions at another military supplier, Lion Apparel.

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  • If you've never checked out Newshog, you'll want to do so. Cernig is always coming up with material that few other bloggers or journalists have noticed.

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 2:30 AM  

  • Mr. Smintheus- The 1999 article in MOTHER JONES about Lion Apparel was a complete fabrication. Stick to verifiable facts like those concerning the recent case in Massachusetts.

    Since the 1980's Lion has only manufactured fire fighting protective gear sold to the military, not military clothing. Second,
    I welcome you to visit our factory at any time like hundreds of our customers do every year and see for yourself the quality of the environment and the satisfaction of employees.


    Steve Schwartz
    CEO, Lion Apparel

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:57 AM  

  • Mr. Schwartz,

    I'd like to believe that your factory is now a safe and satisfying place for your employees to work in. I can't testify to what conditions were like in 1999 when Mother Jones reported on Lion Apparel. I can say, though, that from what I've seen of your challenge to the article, and from Mother Jones' reponse here...

    that it does not appear to me that the article is a "complete fabrication". The reporter had documents and talked to workers who stated things that contradict what Lion Apparel claimed were the case. In other instances, LA appears to be making claims in terms that are carefully worded to suggest more than is the case.

    For example, Mother Jones countered LA's claim that the base rate was $7 per hour, by pointing out that the only way of obtaining that salary was to fill 100% of a quota. Many of your workers, MJ said, were not meeting quotas and were therefore earned a lower salary than your "base" salary.

    As I say, I cannot easily verify these facts in retrospect, but MJ has offered a credible defense of its reporting. Do you have a link to an investigation of the matter by an independent and unbiased authority, to challenge MJ's allegations?

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 5:35 PM  

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