Welcome to the conversation!

Welcome to the conversation!

Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), made her the most famous American woman of the 19th century and galvanized the abolition movement before the Civil War.

The Stowe Center is a 21st-century museum and program center using Stowe's story to inspire social justice and positive change.

The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on a robust level of audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Recent topics included: Teaching Acceptance; Is Prison the New Slavery; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; Creativity and Change; Race, Gender and Politics Today; How to be an Advocate

This blog will expand the reach of these community conversations to the online audience. Add your posts and comments to keep the conversation going! Commit to action by clicking HERE to stay up to date on Salon and social justice news.

For updates on Stowe Center programs and events, sign up for our enews at http://harrietbeecherstowe.org/email.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Event Recap: Why So Cheap? Is There More to This Story?

How does American consumerism affect people around the world? How are vulnerable workers protected? 

Featured Guest Opening Remarks:

Neil Patrick: Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division.
  • The Wage and Hour division has been around since 1938 and worked on issues such as the minimum wage and other labor laws.
  • Under current Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, there has been an increased commitment to vulnerable workers who do not have the resources to protect themselves.
  • When information about labor violations is received by the Department of Labor, Investigations take place in order to protect workers.
  • Labor trafficking is when vulnerable workers are used and abused, contrary to the law (pay/not paid, forced to live in a situation they cannot leave, give up documentation).
  • The Department of Labor work hand in hand with other agencies who may do a criminal investigation.
  • When these situations are discovered, not only are there wage and hour violations, but safety violations as well. We think of the triangle shirt waist fire which just had its 100th anniversary.
  • Wage and hour complaints used to be the norm, but now there is more focus on vulnerable workers.
  • Problems that are seen include: Poor housing standards, poor wages, lack insurance on vehicles used.
  • There is a lot of agriculture in CT, but there is also a pretty good relationship between agricultural growers and the Department of Labor. This part of the country there is a better relationship with the government and the growers. Areas on the West Coast, such as California don’t see that relationship.
  • ILAB: International Labor Affairs- travels to other countries to discuss labor issues.

John McCarthy: Representing the CT Department of Labor
  • When trafficking first came up in CT it was focused on sex trafficking, ultimately got into labor trafficking and forced labor.
  • States can’t handle immigration issues that may arise; they focus on the labor violations.
  • When you find a constriction of movement, there is an investigation is needed. Situations such as a house with many people in it, who don’t speak English; with one guy in charge, who is the only one allowed to move from the place. This is a major sign that exploitation is occurring.
  • Key to labor enforcement is true and accurate records. Sometimes the Department has to reconstruct those records due to a number of issues, such as misclassification of workers. Doesn’t make a difference of your status-if you worked, you get paid.
  • Misclassification task force looks at areas where employers are not paying taxes, unemployment.
  • Unfortunately there are always people trying to exploit others. It happens right here.
  • Some do come forward and complaints can be anonymous. The reality is that some employers will try to find out who made the complaint.
  • Penalties for employers who commit labor violations could include back pay for employees who have been fired for coming forward.
  • There are so many agencies that can be involved in an investigation, including the Department of Public Health and OSHA.


When you find a problem what services do you provide to the employer?
  • Investigators conduct fact finding (as a result of a complaint or highly targeted industry).
  • A final closing conference is held, usually with the owner. Investigator informs them what they need to do to come into compliance. Once there is compliance assurance other aspects are addressed.
  • A lot of education and outreach is provide by the Department of Labor.

What happens to undocumented workers who are not paid fairly?
  • The Department is committed to enforcing the law evenly.
  • Laws include: that workers are paid at least work minimum wage and time and a half required for over 40 hours. It doesn’t matter if they are undocumented.
  • The Department of Labor has developed relationships with advocacy groups who can provide further services for these workers.
  • “Under the table” cases take a lot of digging and reconstruction of hours work.

Many undocumented or trafficked workers will not come forward because of fear. How does that impact your investigations?
  • There are many different aspects of fear involved. In North Carolina, a company told employees to attend a safety and health seminar, but when they arrived Immigration was there.
  • Employers may report employees to ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) if they come forward about exploitation.
  • There are cases where the employer can threaten the families of the employee as well, which discourages the workers from coming forward.
  • A lot of situations that involve trafficking are not in plain sight.

Is there any protection for those who come forward?
  • U-Visas can provide immigrants who are victims of certain crimes with temporary legal status and work eligibility for up to 4 years if they testify against the employer.
  • Fair Labor Standards Act provides protection. Employer could fire the employee, but Department of Labor will investigate. If a violation is documented it is forwarded to attorneys to pursue action and retaliation.
  • Back wages may be available, but it all takes time. Community agencies and advocacy groups do offer a lot of help.

In a case where workers are locked inside a place and no one can come forward, is there a routine check?
  • Surveillance is done.
  • Sometimes people somehow escape these situations and find a friendly ear. Then their situation is reported
  • What about the cases where people don’t come forward? How do you get to the rest?
  • It is largely complaint driven
  • Sometimes a legislator will go into a business and see something suspicious, like someone looking too young to work, and this leads to investigations.
  • If there is a chain store/restaurant that is being investigated, it may cause the corporate offices to further investigate other locations.
  • CT has a reputation of being “on top” of labor and wage issues. They are out there pursuing laws.
  • Restaurants, agriculture, health care industry (i.e. nursing homes), and construction are target industries.
  • Some restaurants have reputations for long hours, many in one living space, and little pay. Most of these cases also include a language barrier. Many departments are required to get involved in these cases.

How do you know who to go to?
  • For most things you go to the State, but you can also go to the Federal Department; they work together.
  • There is a phone number to call and speak with a real person: 860-240-4160

What is the youngest age with child labor? How young have you found people?

In this country we have found as young as eight years old in agriculture. Working in the fields. This is not on the family farm; this is working as a laborer.

There is a concentration of wealth in a few. How are consumers supposed to make conscious decisions about purchasing non-trafficked goods if they themselves live on minimum wage?
  • CT has a minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. That is not necessarily a “living wage”.
  • There are some states that have a minimum wage that is less than the Federal minimum wage, but the Federal wage overrides that.
  • Living wage has been dealt with many times in CT.
  • Middle class is getting smaller.
  • It’s difficult to tax the rich more; because people say “then they’ll leave the state”.
  • Employers shouldn’t be the only ones who benefit from the fruits of their workers.
  • A lot of education and work with community organizations is done to make sure people know their rights. 

  • Industries with high level of forced labor: Agriculture, construction, restaurants, health care
  • Advocate for vacation pay to be classified as “wages” rather than benefits
  • Report questionable labor situations to state or Federal authorities
  • Speak Up!!
  • Raise the minimum wage to a living wage
  • Call US Dept of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division at: 860-240-4160 if you have a question or concern. (a real person will answer)
  • The Stowe Center should host Salons on the Prosperity Gap and Unionized Labor.

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