As the Threat of Labor Trafficking Evolves, Cities Must Collaborate, Commit—And Follow Through to Ensure Worker Safety
Over the past few decades, the U.S. economy has shifted away from organized labor toward outsourcing. More recently, the political climate has grown increasingly hostile to low-wage workers. As a result, there is an increased threat of exploitation and trafficking for at-risk populations. In an effort to address current challenges, Pathways to Freedom (PTF) awarded a grant to Chicago’s worker center coalition Raise the Floor Alliance to support their mission of providing low-wage workers access to quality jobs and empowering those workers to uphold and improve workplace standards.
We recently spoke with Sophia Zaman, the executive director of Raise the Floor, as well as Shelly Ruzicka, the communications director of coalition member Arise Chicago, about how their organizations are impeding worker exploitation through multiple avenues—including a critical collaboration with local government.
Pathways to Freedom: PTF selected Raise the Floor Alliance as a grantee in part because of your efforts to confront worker exploitation issues stemming from our changing economy and political climate. How are those issues playing out in Chicago’s employment market, and how are worker centers addressing them?
Sophia: The past few decades have been troublesome for low-wage workers with the outsourcing of manufacturing and warehouse work and the degradation of unions. As a result, low-wage industries such as landscaping, construction, and restaurant and domestic work have trended away from solid, stable positions and instead are being shaped by precariousness and a lack of rights. One way Raise the Floor and our partners are trying to make the economy equitable for everyone is by organizing workers on the margins who don’t have built-in negotiating power.
Shelly: We are also working on broader policy issues to both protect workers’ rights and improve wages and working conditions.
Pathways to Freedom: Tell us about Raise the Floor’s model, and how Arise Chicago and the other seven worker centers fit within the organization.
Sophia: The Raise the Floor Alliance is a space where we bring together the strength of many different organizations, which enables us to punch above our individual weight.
Our Alliance was founded by eight Chicago-area worker centers—including Arise—to serve two core functions. First, we are an umbrella organization with a shared support staff that enables us to inform the community about worker issues in Chicago, maintain relations with legislators, and understand workplace conditions so we can identify and correct problems. We do this through a variety of means including pushing for new laws and advocating for individual workplace policies. Uniquely, we have a legal department that allows us to use litigation as a tool for organizing.
Secondly, we are a place of action that addresses the issues common to many low-income workers such as discrimination, poor working conditions, reduced hours and other abuses. We bring together the shared experiences of all of our founding worker centers, and channel the organizations’ combined strengths so we have a more powerful presence at the statewide level.
We have gone through a few iterations since our inception, but a key component of our work has always been wage theft. In 2010, we helped create a small claims process at the Illinois Department of Labor that allowed low-wage workers with claims meaningful to their lives, but too low to motivate a lawyer to get involved, to get representation and, ultimately, get paid.
In 2017, we were part of the Responsible Job Creation Act formed in response to warehousing industries that were rampantly abusing health and safety conditions. For example, workers were being tasked with using potentially dangerous equipment without adequate training, and many workers were working years-long stints under the auspices of temporary work when in reality the companies were just avoiding investing in the legal rights of workers. We are very proud of that effort, though as the law begins to be rolled out, we are observing gaps that need to be reviewed and filled in.
Shelly: Our successful campaign to establish the Chicago Office of Labor Standards (OLS) is a great example of how Raise the Floor’s capacity helped our organization move the City to make meaningful change.
Pathways to Freedom: On that note, tell us more about OLS, your role working with the city on its design, and what’s next on your agenda?
Shelly: OLS came about because of a lack of local enforcement of local worker protections. Enforcement has always been a problem at every level of legal protection including federal and state laws. With a lack of action at the federal level, in recent years, workers and organizations like ours have moved toward organizing for state and local worker protections and wage increases.
Arise Chicago won a Chicago Anti-Wage Theft ordinance in 2013, and then in 2016 our coalition won Paid Sick Days, the same year the city passed its first municipal minimum wage. So, for the first time, low-wage workers in Chicago had access to better wages and workplace protections. However, it was primarily on the workers to enforce the laws themselves because our local government did not have sufficient structure or capacity to do so. It became a crisis of enforcement–what good are laws that aren’t enforced and don’t actually benefit workers?
As soon as we won paid sick days, we began exploring how to make sure that it and all local worker laws could be effectively enforced. At the same time, we knew similar laws had been passed in other municipalities, and other cities had started creating enforcement offices to make sure the laws were actually protecting workers as they were designed to do.
We looked at how enforcement was handled successfully elsewhere, especially by offices in Seattle and New York and built our campaign around their best practices. We also started talking to our members about what effects they were experiencing from the new laws. Once we had our model of what would work in Chicago, we began organizing our worker members and allies to visit their aldermen across the city. Our worker members talked to their aldermen about what life would look like for working families if Chicago’s existing laws were enforced. We won a lot of council support from those in-person visits; a majority of city council signed on as sponsors and the ordinance was introduced. The next critical stage was the City Council Committee hearing – that’s where any real debate happens, and details get fleshed out. We organized a large group of workers and allies to attend. Arise members testified at the hearing, including one who shared how he had to demand his employer pay the new Chicago minimum wage and faced retaliation for simply requesting his employer follow the law. It was a poignant moment, with the committee aldermen wanting to know which ward he worked in, all of them hoping it wasn’t theirs. But it really sparked something in them to realize how important these laws are, how much they impact workers’ lives, and that the passage of the law really wasn’t enough.
The office is slated to open this year, but there have been some delays related to the recent mayoral and aldermen elections and changing of administrations. We expect the department director will be hired soon, which is clearly a critical first step. Then he or she can hire the additional staff. Upon winning the ordinance to create the office, we secured funding for five full time positions to run it. There is already a complaint path that workers can take, filing with an existing office that includes business licensing. But that office did not receive additional staff or resources after any of the worker protections were passed into law. That is the whole point of this new office – it will solely be dedicated to receiving worker complaints, enforcing existing and any new laws (like fair scheduling which just passed this summer – led by Warehouse Workers for Justice, another RTF member), and investigating known violators.
In the meantime, we are thinking proactively about our next steps, such as how to ensure the department continues partnering with groups like Arise and Raise the Floor. Additionally, we are thinking about how to use data the city will be collecting to identify trends within industries, demographics, geographic regions and types of workers so the city can conduct proactive, targeted outreach down the road—as well as hold violators accountable.
Pathways to Freedom: How do you view the intersection between your organization’s work and human trafficking?
Sophia: Our organization’s efforts are aimed at prevention and addressing pre-trafficking conditions because low-wage work lends itself to exploitation, and abuse is normalized. We try and educate workers about their rights as well as enforce laws on the books, so they are less vulnerable.
Shelly: Trafficking is very difficult to prove legally, so a lot of our work relates to prevention. However, we do see situations like employers holding onto a domestic worker’s passport, and we strive to prevent those conditions in part by creating effective laws with labor standards.
Pathways to Freedom: Did the new mayoral administration meet your expectations in its first 100 days?
Sophia: Mayor Lightfoot campaigned on increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour as well as eliminating the tipped worker sub-minimum wage. We’re part of that campaign, but we want to ensure the administration knows that while passing new laws is important, there is no point if there’s no enforcement. All members of our alliance agree that that we need a more robust enforcement ecosystem.
Shelly: Mayor Lightfoot has also already opened an “office of equity,” which we hope is a good indication that worker protections and employer accountability are important to her. Because most low-wage jobs in Chicago are disproportionately held by women, immigrants, and workers of color, worker rights strongly align with her equity goals. We look forward to the Office of Labor Standards staff being hired soon, and we look forward to working with them.
Pathways to Freedom: What challenges are you facing in in terms of educating workers and elevating the problem of labor trafficking?
Shelly: We don’t operate in a bubble, while worker centers are trusted organizations, we’ve seen how the current presidential administration and anti-immigrant rhetoric is affecting people. We have seen an increase in discrimination reports from workers since the end of 2016, many based on national origin; more reports of verbal abuse referring to workers language, home country, and perceived immigration status. It’s been difficult. At times when anti-immigrant rhetoric was heightened, we saw a decrease in attendance at worker rights workshops. But we are hopeful, because more recently we’ve seen an increase. People want to know their rights. They want to be protected.
In the past few months we’ve been flooded with calls and messages about “no match” letters. These are letters sent from the Social Security Administration to employers saying a worker or workers’ social security name and number do not match. The vast majority of the time this happens from simple clerical errors, such as a misspelled or mistyped name. However, many see this as a direct attack on immigrant workers. “No match” letters had been sent out in mass about a decade ago, but the government stopped using them because of large scale organizing and evidence that they were not effective ways to solve incorrect data. It was a waste of government resources and ended up hurting workers who were many times improperly fired.
It was surprising when we learned that the Trump administration was resuming use of the letters and had sent out “no match” letters to 575,000 employers this spring. The letter itself states that employers should take no negative action against workers. But employers are often confused, and we’ve heard from workers who were given incorrect information on what they are required to do and others who were fired. Many times, these are workers who have been at their jobs for 10-20 years. Improper firings cause major economic crises for families. It’s causing a mass displacement of workers from decent paying jobs with some benefits to low-wage jobs and temp agencies.
While some employers are truly confused and not sure what to do when they receive the letters, we worry about others using the “no match” letters as leverage against workers who stand up for their rights or ask for higher wages or safer conditions. While the letters are from SSA, and are not at all related to immigration, employers have incorrectly used the letters as a false threat around known or perceived immigration status. For example, if workers make demands to end safety hazards or increase wages, employers may say they’ll “call ICE” since they have these “no match” letters and scare workers from taking action. As mentioned before, proving human trafficking is difficult, but such threats to workers freedom to organize and request improvements are in the same vein.
While the “no match” crisis is indeed causing chaos for many families, we are also excited to see workers fighting back. Arise has supported hundreds of workers to save and win back jobs and wages after improperly being fired. Even more exciting is when workers have decided not to stop there. They continue to organize to improve the jobs they saved by forming committees and creating collective demands for better working conditions. It’s a really powerful thing to go from thinking you are losing your job, to joining your coworkers to negotiate with your boss for better wages, and safer conditions. It’s a powerful thing for workers to transform – from feeling like individual disparate victims, to a collective body with more control over their lives.