The following was written by Mike Reed of Sheridan, IL, courtesy of MoveOn.org.
Anyone expecting dry statistical evidence at the Warehouse Workers for Justice meeting last Thursday at Mount Carmel Church in Joliet heard instead many personal and gripping stories of sexual harassment and assault—delivered by half a dozen of the victims themselves.
Originally hailed by local chambers of commerce and city officials as a means of easing the high unemployment rate in their respective areas, local chambers of commerce and city officials assured the public that building the warehouse system would be a boon to the economy as people hired to work within such structures would be given the opportunity to earn a living wage and be accorded benefits. The picture painted was a rosy one.
Unfortunately, this system quickly turned out to benefit hardly anyone but the management and owners of these warehouses, and for a long time not only have the women employees earned far less than men who do the same work, but they have been subjected to much intimidation, both psychological and physical.
“I could never get through a single day without hearing disgusting comments about my body and the most awful ‘offers’ and suggestions,” said one woman on the panel. Another employee added that when she complained to the supervisor about the remarks and “touching” that she suffered on a daily basis the boss put the blame on her—effectively refusing to offer her any protection at all. “He told me that I could quit complaining, or just quit, because he would just hire someone who won’t complain.”
The physical demands placed on these female workers are very often taxing and dangerous. Many must lift very heavy items in the loading of trucks. “One time I had to load fish tanks all day. Each one weighed over a hundred pounds. I hurt my back, and then I couldn’t work at all. The boss yelled at me, because he gets a bonus for no lost-time accidents.”
Predicaments like this are common, and the companies offer no benefits or medical care.
“I’m a mother with three children and a disabled husband, and now I can’t do the job and I can’t go to a doctor,” added the woman.
Certainly the most telling example of the abuses to which women in the warehouse districts are subjected came from a seventeen-year-old girl who was allegedly repeatedly taunted and badgered by her supervisor, who finally coerced her into having sex with him. When this was reported to the police for investigation, she was told to “investigate your own case” and round up her own witnesses before returning to the authorities.
Accounts of varying levels of mistreatment echoed throughout the hall, as the audience either sat in strained silence or vigorously applauded the women’s courage in coming forward with their stories.
Charlotte Drugan, of the Unitarian Church of Joliet, spoke up in an impassioned voice, “You know why the politicians and chambers of commerce don’t do anything about this? Because they’re the ones responsible and don’t want anything to change. We have got to vote them out, and we have to spread the word about these horrors.”
In the meantime, criminal and civil actions have been initiated, but the abuses go on inside the windowless walls of Wal-Mart, Partners, and others. What was pitched as a means to achieving the American Dream is nothing short of a nightmare for thousands—especially for female workers.