Posts tagged Colorado.
My non-profit for Latina opportunity and rights was invited to a series of meetings this week which I attended yesterday at work hosted by the U.S. Dept. of Labor. The forum was held at CU Denver and my coworker and I went with an interest in checking out the workshop on worker’s rights. We got to the campus thinking that the event was being held in this giant fancy cathedral on the campus, but the woman tabling out front informed us that the event inside was a Q&A panel on overcoming barriers to employment. While this seemed relevant to our work, we had not prepared any questions, so we took her suggestion to attend the “Know your rights” workshop in another building. We walked into the room and mistaking us for students, the presenter informed us where the classroom was for final exams. We told him we were attending the workshop and he, with slight surprise, welcomed us in. The room was less full than I had expected. A group of six women sat in the far corner, surrounding another woman in a professional black and white dress. Behind where my coworker and I sat was older man in a tweed suit. The presentation continued. The compliance assistance specialist from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was on his slide titled “Rights in the Workplace”. He went on to explain the usual “you have a right to a safe and healthy workplace”, the woman in the dress translated in Spanish to the other women “you have a right to know about hazardous chemicals you are exposed to”.
The women, all Latinas, responded to their translator, “we don’t have these rights”. My coworker and I listened in to their conversation, learning that they have never seen the copy of the manual which explains how to handle chemicals. We interrupted, curious and concerned on behalf of their safety, “where do you work”? They replied “Aqui!” One woman spoke up to everyone ” we don’t have any training for how to use this, we come in the first day and they send us out to clean”. The news was disconcerting, and the presenter urged them to file a complaint with his organization. “We can’t” they said. That’s where things got confusing and we realized there was more to this case than met the eye.
We started asking them more questions, and the responses were not good. We discovered that, through speaking directly to them, and then translating for the presenter, and back, that they are not technically covered by OSHA standards. That because University of Colorado-Denver is a state institution, they have the choice to opt in or out of using these federal standards as a state entity. We concluded that their safety in the workplace is most likely through the CO Dept. of Health. While safety trainings are required, we learned from these women that they are hired, and just thrown into the campus to clean, without being shown around or trained in procedure or safety. Things got so bad from here. We asked if they were unionized and they said yes, but it didn’t matter. Tired of their mistreatment they wrote their own bill of rights and marched on campus, bringing their document to the union, which rejected it. We learned later that Colorado WINS, their union, actually doesn’t do shit- and is in fact lobbying against a piece of anti-discrimination legislation! When the representative from WINS showed up, she was not happy to see the two of us sitting there ready to speak in Spanish all about how badly the workers she is supposed to represent get treated. The man in the back looked nervous too, I don’t know where he was from but he had the audacity to tell us to tell the workers that if they felt it necessary they could file a lawsuit against their employer and bring them to court. My coworker’s response was perfect. I was pissed too but I don’t have the way with words she does, “excuse me sir”, she said, “I don’t think that you understand the pressing issues here. Their working conditions should not be so bad in the first place that they need to go to court. And also, I don’t find it very appropriate of you to want to tell a group of low income, minimum wage domestic workers to seek a lawyer and sue the state”. He was so flustered, it was great. And kind mumbled, “well some lawyers would do it”.
I think here is where I’ll just start listing the thing I learned in conversation with them:
1. Workers not given employee manuals
2. Workers not given to use computers to look at time sheet, payroll, or check the CU site for safety procedures
3. Workers denied breaks
4. Workers scheduled shifts change mid-week without notice. They explained how they all worked the 3rd shift (5-11:30pm) which they loved because they could see their children and no students or faculty, who disrespect them, harass, and even spit at them, were there. Their supervisor changed the shit to a day shift that goes into 3rd, and when she explained this was too short notice because she has kids to care for, the supervisor said she “didn’t care about her family or her kids”. She now only sees her children 30 minutes every day.
5. Workers are not compensated for their overtime.
6. Workers are overworked, A team must clean three buildings. They should be 8-9 people but are only 4-5. They separate the Latinas from the white and Black workers, and give them the worst work.
7. Workers must sort trash without proper gloves. They said they only provide them with latex gloves that are for single use, and usually after a few minutes the gloves have torn open. They said that proper rubber gloves are too expensive for their employer to provide.
8. Workers are responsible for cleaning the science labs. They don’t know what chemicals they are using, or how to dispose of them. They also must dispose of dissected animals like cats and rats.
9. They must sort recyclables from trash.
10. They have to scrub staircases with small brushes, and if the supervisor finds a sneaker scuff, they must do the whole thing over, not just where its unclean.
11. One woman told us her supervisor forced her to clean toilets without gloves. “What was I supposed to say, no? I have kids at home that I have to feed.”
12. Women have passed out from chemicals, and the incident reports did not leave the supervisors desk, nor was there an announcement, they only knew from talking to eachother.
13.One woman had a purple burning rash on her arm for six weeks after exposure to certain chemicals. Her supervisor told her there was nothing she could do about it.
14.Workers are sexually harassed by students and supervisors.
15. They all agree to “being treated like slaves”
When I heard that I paused and pondered for a moment. It was completely true. The systematic dynamics of their discrimination, privilege and oppression were clear. The state is using Latinas to do degrading work in a purposeful manner. There are rights they have as workers that are blatantly being denied. The fact that the employer is forcing them to work long hours of physical labor for low wages has direct effects on Latin@ communities. One of these effects is the school to prison pipeline and the mass incarceration of Brown and Black people. When mothers are forced to work such hours that they can only see their children 30 minutes a day, then the family is not raised properly. Her children can end up skipping school, or dealing with drugs. This would result in her child’s arrest which would come back full circle, making the state money in privatized prisons-which was denied to the mother in the first place creating the former situation.
The chemicals they don’t bother teaching them about are lethal. Slowly, yes, but nonetheless do serious harm to the body they need to know about. Latinas already are disproportionally prone to preventative diseases but lack the resources to protect themselves. Every woman there was at least 40. The oldest looked in her 60s. It was heartbreaking hearing what they are subjected to. “I get a stomach ache before work every day because I dont know how I will be treated or what they will make me do” she said. The chemicals they are using in the labs are known to cause cancer, sterilization, and respiratory problems.
While this whole meeting was not what we expected when we left for our meeting yesterday, I think, we all think, it was destiny for us to meet in that place on that day. They were so thankful to share their stories with us, and they said they don’t care if they get fired for working with us, they don’t want conditions to remain this way for other workers. I want to scream and cry and once. Half of me was filled with rage and shock, the other wasn’t so surprised this could go on, and was deeply sad for these women. Its very strange when theory crosses the threshold from abstract to concrete.
My coworker and I are investigating their available protections, and researching what support we will need from other non-profs to stop this abuse. We have scheduled to bring them in and record their stories. This type of modern day slavery can not be tolerated at an education of higher learning. When this blows up, CU students, administration, faculty and staff should be ashamed that things have been going on like this. These Latina women have a life to fulfill and they are instead subjected to abuse and racism, that is literally killing them-body and soul.
Please share this story and get the word out about how the women that clean your buildings, dorms, and dining commons are actually treated so we can end this abuse.