Going for a ride with Chicago's 'raiteros'

The yellow school bus owned by Rigo transports workers from the alley in Little Village to the Ty Inc. warehouse 30 miles away in the southwest suburb of Bolingbrook, outside of Chicago, Ill., on Jan. 18, 2013.

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.

Read the investigative report from ProPublica's Michael Grabell, and explore more features and background from his reporting on ProPublica.org. Plus, read more from this investigation.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.
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I think everyone is going off topic and not paying enough attention to the important points in this article. The fact that hundreds of hardworking people are being taken advantage of, is a very sad but very true story. This reporter documented what happens in the staffing world 110% correct. I experienced these unjust processes first hand when I went to work for Select Remedy in Cresthill. I initially worked for a different staffing company when I was recruited by the office manager of SR. As soon as I started working for that staffing agency I noticed many discrepancies, violations, and more. The process of the "Raiteros" was one of the worst policies I was pressured to comply with. The "raiteros" basically control who got to work and who didn't. They also received a cut off all the checks of the poor people they provide a ride for, while they bribe the staffing recruiter by giving her money and providing lunches every week for all staff in the office. There are two main recruiters that control all deals with the "raiteros" and whom they know on a personal basis, Jazmin and the office manager. The entire process, cheats poor undocumented people who are working minimum wage jobs, out of almost half their paychecks. The situation is a very sad and unjust one, and I am glad that someone has been able to shed some light on it.

Just why aren't all of these criminals being arrested? Why should I care about parasites being taken advantage of when an American used to do every job they've taken?

I pay out the nose on lousy health insurance and student loans are killing me. They have an anchor brat and get welfare, housing, translators, free ER care (at higher cost to me), racist scholarships, etc.

Fine and arrest those who hire them, deport illegal immigrants and ban them from the US. Neither they or their anchor babies deserve any kind of reward for victimizing the people of this country. In fact end birthright citizenship and make sure BOTH parents are legal citizens and I'm all for making it retroactive all the way back to the last amnesty they got.

They've depressed wages, increased the cost of healthcare, displaced poor Americans and pulled the race card when they get caught. Americans owe them nothing. You choose to come here illegally and keep breaking laws don't blame me for it. I used to do some of those jobs and had no choice but to leave. When you can't even pay for your gas you look for a job that will. Since when to criminals deserve handouts or pity of any kind?

Enough is enough enforce the laws, end birthright citizenship and PUNISH them! I've had it with no enforcement of the laws in this country. I work and when I listen to the news they'd better start calling a spade a spade. ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS are here ILLEGALLY and are breaking the law! Get rid of them already and stop trying to paint them as victims. Either obey the laws and come here legally, assimilate, learn English (yes it could have been German) and stop blaming everyone else for your problems or don't come at all. The Separatists are pathetic racists hell bent on forcing everyone to pay for their mistakes (La Raza for instance).

Hmm, people are breaking the law by treating others badly who broke the law. And the solution is crack down on neither but to change the laws that are being broken?

Sorry, but the government needs to crack down on all of the illegal actions. The raiteros for breaking state laws and the Temp agency for hiring people not authorized to work in the US and the people who are trying to work who do not have authorization to work in the US.

That would fix the problems highlighted in the story.

Undocumented workers should NOT be allowed to work. Give the jobs to unemployed Americans and or LEGAL IMMIGRANTS. The governemnt should be cracking down on this type labor and we will see the unemployment rate go up!

Ungrateful wretch! You really don't get it, do you? American Indians are the 'original Americans,' and nobody nor any government agency is offering THEM jobs. Your own ancestors were 'undocumented aliens' at some point, and they also took jobs that Americans already established here would not take. This is the way the American economy has functioned since the Revolution. The Chinese, Swedes, Irish, Italians, and so many other 'undocumented immigrants' took the jobs which helped, in large part, America to become the great nation it has become.

These undocumented workers are entitled, under current U.S. Code, to be paid minimum wage rates without interference, but as any educated person should know, there are cracks in the structure of any system of government which will never be addressed, short of tyranny. Why can't you 'live and let live' without feeling the need to attack your fellow human beings, who, just like you, have basic needs such as food, shelter, etc.? Would you prefer they rob people such as yourself of their hard-earned money? Of course not, and surely you don't want them relying upon GOVERNMENT HANDOUTS- God forbid! So, just how DO you expect these people to survive? Or would you simply prefer they go back from whence they came? Americans who are intolerant towards immigrants are being hypocritical at the very least- because this entire nation was built upon immigrant labor- including that of the ORIGINAL COLONISTS, ALL OF WHOM were IMMIGRANTS. This gives no mention, of course, of your humongous INGRATITUDE for those who came before you and made much of what you enjoy about America possible.

Uneducated hypocritical attitudes always irritate me, but then I feel aggravated towards the low I.Q. of the person who shot their mouth off only to advertise their own willful and wanton ignorance, which ultimately amounts to stupidity (where stupidity = dumb squared + failure to learn from past mistakes).

Y'know, people like you, rlacontojr, are one reason why the GOP gets a bad rap (and probably is the party of choice for you); that and your inability to type a simple word like 'government,' or remember to use connectors like "of,' and making arguments which are idiotic. Jeez fella, get a clue! Oh, and while you're at it, you should go take one of those jobs packing Ty Corporation's stuffed animals into crates, or packing lettuce into boxes, because that is the level of education you bring to the argument with your moronic, semi-literate commentary.

You just drank that big business Kool-Aid up didn't ya?

The immigrants of the past they didn't get special handouts, translations of forms in their language, special treatment in school admission, kept in easy contact with or helped smuggle other family members from their home land, smuggle drugs or guns (or child sex slaves), or get special financial aid in the form of a racist scholarship. They came several at a time in one or two waves.
They built up their businesses and worked their butts off to become productive citizens.

ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS just take take take.

They come in a constant stream from all over and are encouraged by more corrupt governments that refuse to care for them to come here and demand the "White Devil American" pays their way to a better life. We translate endless forms for them, press #2 for Spanish on the phone, press a button to translate a webpage to Spanish, and are the most racist scum you'll ever deal with. If you call them on it they'll just pull the race card. Get a grip on reality and just try to go out and get one of those jobs. I kept getting underbid by illegal immigrants and couldn't work in landscaping anymore. $4/hr isn't going to pay for your gas let alone your time but no, you just live in your ignorant little bubble and wonder why this country has no more opportunity to go around-just handouts.

The American Dream has become the American Delusion - and you're clearly one who still believes it's a real thing.

You may be out of line. He suggests employing LEGAL immigrants. Not the usual xenophobia line.
I'd wager he'd be FINE employign Native Americans.
Of course, both Natives and Legal Immigrants would get paid more so the companies using illegals aren't interested.

Stiff fines are the only thing that'd get them to obey the law.
Perhaps we could apply the fines towards a fund to reimburse illegals who complain about getting stiffed. (Maybe a green card for every illegal that turns in a scofflaw company.)

Congress tolerates this mess because they get campaign money from these plutocratic machines.

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