Companies looking to use foreign workers for cheap labor don’t need to leave the United States. A joint investigation by Marketplace and ProPublica found that many of the country’s biggest companies use immigrant labor in their warehouses near Chicago. Often, those workers pay fees to get the jobs, bringing their pay below minimum wage.
The workers come from Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood -- the largest Mexican population in the Midwest.
At around 4:30 one morning earlier this month, I met some of those workers -- all Latino, many undocumented -- as they gathered around a white van on a side street in Little Village. It was freezing cold, and most quickly took a spot in the van. They’re headed 40 minutes away to minimum-wage jobs in the suburbs, where they’ll pack stuffed animals at a warehouse.
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Select Remedy, a subsidiary of one of the nation’s biggest temp staffing companies, signs their checks.
But recruiting the workers and transporting them to the job site is handled by an underground labor broker called a ‘raitero.’ In our investigation, we found the raiteros control access to work from beginning to end.
“There’s lots of work at Fresh Express. Packing lettuce. Men and women. Be ready at five in the morning.” That’s the outgoing message for one raitero, who records a daily ‘help wanted’ list on his phone.
Once the workers are recruited, some raiteros charge them a fee to fill out a job application -- even though it’s against the law.
“For the application, I had to pay like $4,” says 20-year-old Maria Martinez.
The entrance to Chicago's Little Village neighborhood -- the largest Mexican population in the Midwest. (Photo: Jeff Tyler)
Many workers don’t have cars. So they depend on the raitero to get to and from the job. But that can be a scary proposition. I ask a small, middle-aged worker named Estela if she has confidence in the drivers.
“They drive very crazy. Sometimes they drive at very high speeds. It is not safe,” says Estela.
She has even seen some drivers get drunk on the job.
Drivers are supposed to have a commercial license, but many don’t have any license. When I ask one driver to see his license, he says he has one, but won’t show it to me.
The rides are the main way raiteros make money. They charge $8 a day for a ride, roundtrip. That’s a lot for temp workers who make just over $8 an hour.
Many workers told me that if you don’t pay for a ride, the raiteros won’t find you a job.
Employment lawyer Chris Williams represented a worker who lives in Joliet, south of Chicago.
“We had a worker who went to a staffing agency. Was told, ‘no. If you want to work at this staffing agency, you have to drive up to Chicago, go to Little Village, and meet at someone’s garage,’” says Williams. “He went there. He waited. He got on a van that drove him back to Joliet, to a factory in Joliet, Ill. Then, at the end of the day, he had to drive back in the van. And then get back in his car and drive back to Joliet. And he had to pay for the ride in order to do that.”
Williams says forcing temp workers to pay for rides is illegal under Illinois law.
And if the money for the ride is deducted from a worker’s check -- forcing the pay below minimum wage -- that’s illegal, too.
Other raiteros bring workers' paychecks to H Services Exchange at 26th Street and Hamlin Avenue in Little Village, seen in this photo from April 19, 2013. (Photo: Sally Ryan for ProPublica)
On Friday evening in Little Village, at the end of a long week, workers come to 26th Street, where raiteros distribute paychecks at check-cashing stores. Workers pay one to two percent to get their checks cashed. And sometimes they’re even cheated out of the change.
“They keep all the pennies,” Delfina says.
Many workers say they’ve been ripped off for more than pennies, and are cheated out of hours worked. For 19-year old Elizabeth Bellido, the word ‘overtime’ is like a cruel joke.
“I actually had to come in on a Sunday and we worked a full day. They told us they were going to pay us double time, which was 16 dollars per hour," Bellido says. "We didn’t get that in our paychecks.”
I found 20-year-old Maria Martinez selling fruit from a food cart on the sidewalk. She used to work with the raiteros, until she didn't get paid.
"They just had us back and forth, going to the office and the raitero. And your money? They didn't give it to you," says Martinez.
She says she was cheated out of pay for 40 hours, or about $300.
I spoke with Eugenio Aguilar, the raitero that Martinez blamed for her missing check. But Aguilar says any missing payments are the result of a clerical error by the temp staffing agency.
"The companies use a supervisor. Sometimes the supervisor forgets to record the names of the workers. That’s why sometimes they don’t get paid," says Aguilar.
I met Aguilar in front of his apartment building - nothing special for Little Village. I asked him if he’s getting rich as a raitero. He laughs at the suggestion.
“No. Just enough to eat,” says Aguilar.
I met another raitero at a church in a two-story brick building on a residential street. Bertin Salgado is also a reverend. He says the church is not connected to his business as a raitero.
“The temporary staffing offices don’t pay me anything," Salgado says. "Sometimes they don’t even know me.”
He sees his work as a raitero as helping the community.
“The raitero exists because it’s a necessity,” says Salgado.
Several workers I interviewed said the same thing. Without the raiteros, they say, who’s going to hire a middle-aged woman with no education, no car and no ability to speak English?
The raiteros represent their lifeline to employment. But it comes at a big price they can’t avoid paying.