In July, Reveal investigates who’s responsible for protecting workers harmed on the job. Reveal’s collaborative investigation with FRONTLINE, Univision, the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and KQED examines the hidden problem of sexual assault on the night shift.
We also explore the legacy of toxic chemicals used in electronics manufacturing and the effect they have on the people who’ve built our technology-based economy, both here and in Asia. And we take to the fields and explore why it was so hard to ban a tool that was injuring agricultural workers.
Host: Al Letson
Executive Producer: Kevin Sullivan
Executive Editor: Susanne Reber
Editorial Director: Robert Salladay
Managing Director: Christa Scharfenberg
Lead Sound Designer and Engineer: Jim Briggs
Reporters: Sasha Khokha, KQED; Bernice Yeung, Daffodil Altan, Laura Starecheski, Sandra Bartlett and Ike Sriskandarajah, Reveal; Jim Morris, The Center for Public Integrity
Producers: Julia B. Chan, Peter Haden, Delaney Hall, Michael Montgomery, Neena Satija, Laura Starecheski, Ike Sriskandarajah, Amy Walters and Jillian Weinberger
Show Editor: Deb George
Editor: Andy Donohue
Senior Management for CIR: Joaquin Alvarado and Robert J. Rosenthal
Senior Management for PRX: John Barth, Kerri Hoffman and Jake Shapiro
- Camerado/Lightning, “All Our Bass Are Belong to Chops” (Cutoff Man Records)
- Ezekiel Honig, “A Closed Loop That Opens Everywhere” from “Folding In On Itself” (Type Records)
- Tycho, “Send and Receive” from “Hohokum Soundtrack” (Ghostly International)
- Ezekiel Honig, “Click and Sleep” from “People Places & Things” (Microcosm Music)
- Ezekiel Honig, “Material Instrument” from “Surfaces of a Broken Marching Band” (Anticipate Recordings)
- J. Dilla, “Requiem” from “Rebirth of Detroit Instrumentals” (Yancey Media Group LLC)
- Aeroc, “If I Had the Time” from “R+B=?” (Ghostly International)
- Kiln, “Ghost” from “Sunbox” (Ghostly International)
- Christopher Willits, “Sun Body” from “Tiger Flower Circle Sun” (Ghostly International)
- Chris Bathgate, “Borders (Instrumental)” from “Salt Year (Instrumentals)” (Quite Scientific Records)
- Tycho, “The Daydream” from “The Daydream/The Disconnect” (Ghostly International)
- Tycho, “Ascension” from “Dive” (Ghostly International)
- By Peter Krug, performed by Danny Valdez and Augustin Lira, “The Migrant’s Song” from “Broadside Ballads, Vol. 4: The Time Will Come and Other Songs from Broadside Magazine” (Folkways Records)
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
I want you to think about the technology you carry with you every day. The things that now feel like you couldn’t live without. Like, your smartphone, your tablet, your activity tracker. It’s miraculous how they keep us connected. But there can be a heavy price for that tiny magic.
Dr. Joe LaDou: I saw hundreds and hundreds of hydrofluoric acid splashes on people. Fingers and toes, noses. Just horrific.
Al Letson: Workers are being put at risk. And it’s not just on factory floors. But in our office buildings, on the night shift.
Maria Magaña: Every time I pass to come by this bank, I remember what happened. That’s why I agreed to let you tape me. So I could help remind women that they shouldn’t work alone.
Al Letson: Hidden hazards in the working world. That’s coming up on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
So who’s responsible when a worker gets injured, or even attacked on the job. Is it the company? The government? What about the workers themselves?
We’re going to start today by looking at a group of workers who are practically invisible. They come in under the cover of night and bring order and cleanliness to the buildings that many of us work in. The janitors. They’re an essential part of our work lives that we, the general public, rarely engage with. For the past eighteen months, we teamed up with PBS Frontline, Univision, our radio partner KQED and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley. Through that investigation, we uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse of women who clean the malls where you shop, the banks where you do business and the offices where you do work.
Sasha Khokha from KQED was a part of our team and brings us this story we’re calling Rape on the Night Shift.
Sasha Khokha: The lights go out as the daytime office workers leave the building and then room by room they flicker back on. Three stories of glass light up like a shadow play. The silhouettes of janitors appear on different floors. One polishing a window, another mopping. Outside two women hide behind a palm tree, watching.
Vicki Marquez is less than five feet tall with heels on. Veronica Albarado has tattoos and green highlights streaking through her hair.
Veronica: Do you see him? There’s a guy walking. He’s passing the vacuum. In the second floor…
Sasha Khokha: The women are casing this office park in suburban Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles. THey’re undercover investigators with a tiny non-profit that’s trying to root out abuses in the cleaning industry.
Veronica: So we’re walking about the building to see the possible entryways…
Sasha Khokha: They’ll sometime wait for janitors near garbage dumpsters or inside bathroom stalls.
[translating Marquz] don’t run, says Marquez, that makes us look suspicious to the security cameras. Magic, magic, says Albarado. The door is still unlocked.
On this night they find janitors who work seven days a week without overtime. Others who have to buy their own cleaning supplies, but once in a while they’ll meet a woman who confides a darker secret, that she’s being sexually abused on the job.
Our investigation found that sexual violence is a problem at janitorial companies across the nation. From tiny mom-and-pop shops to big corporations. From companies that operate off the books, to those with shares trader on the New York Stock Exchange. ABM is the nation’s largest janitorial company. It’s among a rare group of fifteen American corporations that have been sued at least three times for failing to protect workers from sexual harassment. ABM employs nearly 65,000 janitors. They clean major airports, city halls, courthouses and towering office buildings across the country. That’s the company Maria Magaña used to work for.
Magaña is a tiny woman in her fifties. She’s practically dwarfed by the giant vacuum cleaner she straps on to her back. She’s been cleaning office buildings in California for nearly two decades. We went on a job with her one night.
Maria Magaña: I don’t leave it dirty. I dust most of the things. I even dust the signs. I’ll do the windows, I clean them.
Sasha Khokha: Magaña even uses a plastic fork to scrape the dust out from the crevices in the window sills. The next day we went to Magaña’s house, even though she was tired from cleaning late at night. She wanted us to come early in the morning, before the neighbors woke up because she didn’t want them to know what we were there to talk to her about. When we got to her street on the rural edge of Bakersfield, the neighbors were already playing music and drinking coffee on their front steps.
Still, Magaña wanted to tell us her story. She says her supervisor at ABM used to harass her. When she started talking about that, she was much more comfortable in Spanish.
Maria Magaña: [translated] So I hit him with my broom and he said, “Maria, why are you so mad, what am I doing wrong? It’s just a caress. I’m just being affectionate.” I told him, “You get any closer and I’ll hit you with the handle right now.” I told him, “I’m going to spray this cleaner in your eyes.”
Sasha Khokha: But he didn’t stop and in 2005 Magaña says, he raped her. She took us to the bank building where she says it happened.
Maria Magaña: [translated] Every time I come to pass by this bank, I remember what happened. That’s why I agreed to let you tape me. So I could help remind women, they should work in places that are well lit. That they shouldn’t work alone.
Sasha Khokha: The building was closed, but she peered in through the tinted glass door.
Maria Magaña: Behind the stairs is the conference room where that man tricked me, got me into that room. He shoved me as soon as I walked in, and raped me.
Sasha Khokha: Magaña went to the bathroom, cleaned herself up, and finished working her shift.
Speaker 7: Did you have sex with Maria Magaña against her will at the ABM work site?
José Vasquez: No.
Sasha Khokha: Three years later, government lawyers deposed José Vasquez, the man Magaña says raped her.
Speaker 7: Did you rape Maria Magaña at the ABM work site?
José Vasquez: No.
Sasha Khokha: The deposition was part of a class action lawsuit involving twenty-one women, including Maria Magaña. It was brought by the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That’s the federal agency charged with protecting workers from discrimination. Anna Park was in charge of the case against ABM.
Anna Park: We did not believe they did all they could and they allowed these women, for years, to be abused.
Sasha Khokha: She says this was one of the worst cases of sexual harassment she had ever seen and showed how the company failed to follow it’s own procedures.
Anna Park: Any good company will say let’s investigate this. Who else is effected? What else is going on? That didn’t happen here.
Sasha Khokha: The lawsuit claimed that ABM failed to protect the women from harassment and assault in the workplace. Fourteen harassers were named. A dozen of the plaintiff pointed to one man. Supervisor José Vasquez. The EEOC found some witnesses too. Scott Stevenson was volunteering one night at a fundraising dinner at a church in Bakersfield.
Scott Stevenson: Sent some kids out to take some trash to the dumpster and they came back with the trash. They thought somebody was hurt in the dumpster area. I went to go investigate, see what was going on and there was, what I believed, was a sexual assault taking place, right in front of us.
Sasha Khokha: He saw a janitor he recognized as José Vasquez near the dumpster.
Scott Stevenson: I recall the belt not being buckled all the way on his pants. I remember that jingling.
Sasha Khokha: He says Vasquez was standing in front of another janitor. A woman.
Scott Stevenson: His arms were spread out, almost like a starfish. He was preventing her from leaving that area. Every attempt she made he would grab her or grope her to get her back in front of him. She was crying. She was in tears. She had that “help me” look on her face.
Sasha Khokha: Stevenson threw the trash into the dumpster.
Scott Stevenson: That made a bang.
Sasha Khokha: Startling José Vasquez. Stevenson called the police and in their report the woman said she was frightened. But when the police asked Vasquez to come to the station a few days later, he showed up with the woman. They both said they had just been playing around. The police dropped their investigation, but the church sent a letter to ABM, reporting what Stevenson had seen.
Scott Stevenson: There’s no way that could’ve been consensual. I’ve never seen anybody have a romantic interlude by a maggot smelling dumpster.
Sasha Khokha: But ABM never interviewed Stevenson. A few months later, the company got two anonymous letters alleging that Vasquez was touching and harassing women and that he had a criminal record. “Help us,” said one letter. “Please, send someone to investigate.” But at his deposition, Vasquez testified that ABM didn’t ask him about the letters
Speaker 7: Nobody from ABM talked to you about sexual harassment allegations in and around September of 2005, correct?
José Vasquez: No sir. Nobody did.
Sasha Khokha: And the company hadn’t checked his background when he was hired. Vasquez was a convicted rapist on California’s sex offender registry. Government lawyers deposed Timothy Brekke, then a regional vice president for ABM.
Timoth Brekke: What’s your overall question, please.
Speaker 7: Well, I’m putting the exhibit in front of you to remind you that he was convicted of rape by force.
Timoth Brekke: I see that, yes.
Sasha Khokha: Brekke admitted the company’s Human Resources Department didn’t notice that when Vasquez filled out his job application, he left the question about criminal history blank.
Speaker 7: So, the question is, do you think it was good idea to put someone who was convicted of rape by force supervising women alone in buildings at night.
Timoth Brekke: No.
Sasha Khokha: But Brekke asked why the women didn’t report their alleged attacks to ABM. For example, Maria Magaña stayed on the job for a year and a half after she says he assaulted her.
Timoth Brekke: …how these things were not reported in a timely manner, how there was no medical back up to some of these things. I just need to have more information.
Speaker 7: So it’s the fault of the women?
Speaker 12: Objection. Argumentative. You may answer.
Timoth Brekke: I didn’t say that.
Sasha Khokha: ABM didn’t admit wrongdoing but settled the case in 2010. The twenty-one women, including Magaña, were awarded a total of nearly six million dollars.
Five years later, Magaña still lives in a cramped house in Bakersfield, taking care of her elderly mother and teenage son. She’s the only income earner and says that’s a big reason why she kept working at ABM so long after her attack. She still works as a full time janitor and says she’s uncomfortable spending the settlement money from the case.
Maria Magaña: [translated] They can give me thousands and thousands of dollars, but to this day I can’t spend the money with joy because I see it as dirty. That money won’t ease my pain. That filthy stain on my heart from that man who marked me. It won’t change the past or clean how dirty I feel.
Sasha Khokha: As for José Vasquez, he was never charged with any crimes related to the ABM case. We tracked him down, but it wasn’t easy.
Because of his previous rape conviction, he’s on California’s sex offender registry, but when we went to that address, he’d moved without notifying authorities.
We finally found him at a new house, but he didn’t want to be recorded. He said he started his own cleaning company and he wanted to put the ABM case behind him. Some of those women, he told us, were just money hungry.
A few months after settling the EEOC case, ABM was featured on national television. A show called Undercover Boss. ABM portrayed itself as a company that takes a lot of pride in its workers.
TV Announcer: Each week, we follow the boss of a major corporation as they go undercover in their own company.
Sasha Khokha: ABM’s CEO at the time, Henrik Slipsager, posed as an immigrant looking for work as a janitor.
TV Announcer: The boss will trade in his well manicured lawn and private tennis court, for rolls of toilet paper and a squeegee.
Sasha Khokha: On the show, a woman janitor taught him how to clean toilets. She had only one complaint about the company.
ABM Employee: One thing probably ABM could do better is have women wear pants. If I have to run around, bend over I got to make sure somebody else, excuse my language, doesn’t see my [inaudible 00:14:18] behind me or something like that.
Sasha Khokha: In the end, impressed with her work ethic, Slipsager gave her a new uniform. A pair of pants instead of a dress. Slipsager and other ABM officials declined our repeated requests for an interview. Just before deadline, they sent us their own video taped statement.
Miranda Tolar: Hi. My name is Miranda Tolar and I’m ABM’s Deputy General Counsel for Employment Law.
Sasha Khokha: Tolar outlined ABM’s commitment to a safe work environment, including sexual harassment training for employees and a hotline where they can report concerns or complaints in 100 languages.
Miranda Tolar: We believe that our policies and procedures are the gold standard in the industry. Our systems work. In some cases, we have been made aware of inappropriate behavior and taken action. In other cases, allegations of wrongdoing have proven to be false and even malicious, often by individuals previously in consensual relationships that ended.
Sasha Khokha: ABM also sent us a letter saying our reporting is focusing on older cases and the company has improved their policies and practices since the EEOC case was settled.
But our investigation found lawsuits filed as recently as May 2015, where janitors say ABM didn’t protect them from harassment and abuse. In some of the cases, women say they were fired for complaining. The company continues to fight harassment cases aggressively, even after they lose at trial.
Maria Bojorquez: [translated] To this day, we are still fighting. They don’t want to accept reality. They don’t want to lose.
Sasha Khokha: Maria Bojorquez is the mother of five and a grandmother. She says she was raped while working the night shift at the San Francisco Ferry Building. ABM investigated but found her allegations inconclusive. Bojorquez sued ABM and in 2012, a jury awarded her more than $800,000. The company is appealing. When they went to court in May, ABM’s attorney told the judges her testimony wasn’t credible.
ABM’s Attorney: She said, I was sexually harassed on an on-going basis for many months, but there was not a single other witness who ever saw any alleged misconduct –
Speaker 18: But would we expect another witness in a nighttime shift on a janitorial service where he’s the foreman and she’s assigned to a particular area?
ABM’s Attorney: There are times that they are alone but there are also times…there’s other janitors who are working in that same building.
Sasha Khokha: ABM’s lawyer admitted though that their workers aren’t always safe.
ABM’s Attorney: ABM and it’s parents, because they’re also being sued, have tens of thousands of employees located across the United States and internationally, many who work in remote locations, at night with minimal supervision. Bad things sometimes happen.
Sasha Khokha: But is there a way to prevent bad things from happening? How about the federal agency charged with ensuring workplace health and safety?
Jordan Barab: My name is Jordan Barab. I’m Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA.
Sasha Khokha: So if someone is raped at work, is that considered an unsafe work environment?
Jordan Barab: Clearly it’s an unsafe environment is somebody is raped at work.
Sasha Khokha: According to estimates from the Justice Department, about fifty workers a day are sexual assaulted or raped on the job. But OSHA doesn’t recognize rape as a widespread hazard. Until our interview, sexual violence against janitors wasn’t something OSHA had on its radar screen.
Has OSHA ever taken on a case involving rape in the workplace?
Jordan Barab: Not that I’m aware of.
Lilia Garcia-Br: It absolutely is a health and safety question. I’m a little baffled by that.
Sasha Khokha: Lilia Garcia-Brower heads up the team of grassroots investigators we met earlier called the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund. It’s a joint effort by the service employees union and some big cleaning companies, including ABM that are undercut by outfits operating in the underground economy.
Lilia Garcia-Br: That’s probably the number one competitor for responsible business are the companies who are paying cash, not paying taxes, not carrying worker’s comp and frankly those are the types of cases where we’ve seen unreported rape and the more serious physically violent crimes.
Sasha Khokha: Vicki Marquez and Veronica Albarado signal each other with their headlights. They’re driving around office building parking lots at night, looking out for janitors. But there are only a handful of these undercover teams, focused on a few cities in California and Massachusetts.
Sexual violence has become part of the national conversation. Universities, the military, they’ve had to publicly acknowledge the problem. But there are some two million janitors in the US, the people who scrub our toilets and vacuum our floors. They can also be victims of rape, but they’re invisible to most of us, working on the night shift.
Al Letson: That’s Sasha Khokha of KQED. Rape on the Night Shift was reported with Reveal’s Daffodil Altan and Bernice Yeung, along with Lowell Bergman and Andre Cediel from the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley. It was produced in collaboration with KQED, PBS Frontline and Univision. You can watch the Frontline film and check out our multi-part series on Revealnews.org/nightshift.
Coming up we’re going to look at some pretty simple steps that could protect janitors on the job and hear more about how this story came together. Back in a minute. This is Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
We’ve heard about some of the dangers that janitors face on the job, but what are the solutions? Unions and employees themselves are pushing for better working conditions. More team cleaning, more female supervisors, even moving their shifts to the daytime when more people are around. Bernice Yeung is a part of the team that investigated this story.
Bernice, this story is really hard to take. I would love to hear there’s some hope that can come out of this. What can the public do to help?
Bernice Yeung: I think the most important thing for us is to be aware and to ask questions because these are really some of the most invisible workers out there. Also, there’s a lot of subcontracting in this industry, so you can ask who is actually going to be in my building. Who is going to be cleaning…follow the trail to make sure that you’re familiar with who the management and who the workers actually are. Ultimately, janitorial work is a business and what we heard time and time again is that the client, and that is you, is important to the janitorial company.
Al Letson: What about the workers? What’s the biggest take-away from them in terms of what they can do to prevent this from happening?
Bernice Yeung: That’s really clear. Reporting the problem is crucial but it’s also such an incredibly hard thing to do. The estimates are the only one third of sexual assault or rape victims actually report the crime. One of the most memorable stories that we came across was a woman named Erika Morales. She was actually the woman who launched that big government case against ABM, the company that you just heard about.
She was a cleaner in Bakersfield, California and she said she was sexually harassed and assaulted by her supervisor and she quit. But she went to the federal government and that’s what ended up launching that lawsuit that you heard about. The case included twenty-one women. The company settled for almost six million dollars.
Al Letson: If the person that you specifically have to report to is the person who’s doing the crime, what steps can you take around it?
Bernice Yeung: If there’s any anonymous hotline, that’s a really important step. Also starting to document and talking to people that you feel comfortable with. Even talking to a co-worker will help. Those individuals can vouch for you when you are ready to make that formal complaint.
Al Letson: In your reporting, if someone brought forth a case and they were undocumented, what was the likelihood of them being sent back?
Bernice Yeung: That was huge, huge concern for so many of the workers that we talked to. To some extent those who are abusing them are aware of that dynamic. The good news is that there is a thing called the U Visa. When individuals assist with the investigation of a crime, such as a sexual assault, such as a rape, there is the possibility that they could apply for this special visa so that they can stay in the country to continue to assist with the prosecution, if it goes that far.
Al Letson: Erika Morales, the woman who launched the big government case, how’s she doing now? Have you caught up with her since all that happened?
Bernice Yeung: We have. She’s actually a really popular radio personality on a Spanish language internet station in Bakersfield. Recently she told her audience that she had been sexually harassed at work. We were actually there in the studio with her and we can play a little clip of how that happened. You can hear in her voice that she’s really, really emotional about it.
She’s never said any of this on air before. She’s apologizing for getting emotional but it’s really something that she’s still trying to overcome.
Al Letson: An incredible story. Thanks for bringing it to us Bernice. Bernice Yeung is a reporter with Reveal. She’s written more about what all of us can do to keep workers safe. You can find that at Revealnews.org.
Now let’s bring in Daffodil Altan. As we mentioned earlier, she worked on the team that reported and produced Rape on the Night Shift for Reveal and PBS Frontline. We wanted to talk to Daffodil about how she actually found this story and worked the sources. While she was trying to find women who were assaulted and asking them to tell their experience, Daffodil realized that she had someone who could help her very close to home.
Daffodil Altan: We were starting to try to vet their stories and we were relying on court documents, on police documents. As I was having these conversations with some of these women, they started to feel a little bit familiar. They were monolingual, most of them Spanish speakers. I would call them and we would really talk about other things, not specifically about the assaults because it’s a traumatic event.
We would have conversations and they were going through a lot in their lives, and I was like, this reminds me of my conversations with my mom. Then it went off like a bell, wait a second, my mom was a janitor. I know that.
Al Letson: Recently, you talked to your mom, right, about that period in her life. Let’s take a listen.
Daffodil’s mom: I worked night shift. Ten o’clock to six o’clock. It was very stressful job.
Daffodil Altan: So you had to clean the mechanic’s bathrooms.
Daffodil’s mom: Yes. Mechanic bathrooms and very filthy [inaudible 00:25:27]. Disgusting.
Daffodil Altan: She starts telling me stories about what it was like at night that are essentially corroborating what I’m hearing. I was in early years in high school and what I understood was that my mom would get ready at nine o’clock at night and leave at ten and wouldn’t be back until six in the morning. As a kid you don’t think about the work lives of your parents. You don’t think about what happens during those eight hours or nine hours at night. I never had. I just knew that I didn’t like it.
Al Letson: I’m wondering, how did this change the way that you looked at your mom a little bit?
Daffodil Altan: One of the things that changed was when I actually was able to ask her, I said, has anything like this ever happened to you. She told me that there was a supervisor who had followed her around and was asking for things from her and she didn’t want to give in. He was aggressive, he was flirting. What he did was, he then made her clean bathrooms for the entire shift.
Daffodil’s mom: Because he liked me so much. [inaudible 00:26:30] Short and fat. I had a handsome husband at home so how am I going to look up to somebody like that. I told him I come to work, not to look for a boyfriend because I had my husband at home. He was so mean to me. All the time he would give me the hard work. All the hardest places I can do. He might, Monday, always give me bathrooms to clean. Only bathrooms because he was so mad at me.
Daffodil Altan: Then she figured out, somehow, that she could complain to the union and she filed a complaint. I said, how did you figure this out? Was there a hotline? Did somebody give you that information? She said no, I just figured it out on my own. She was vulnerable out there and because she was doing so much for us at home when she got home, she didn’t talk about work. She got the lunches ready, she made sure we all were going to go to school.
It makes me realize that some of these victims that are in the stories, they have kids that we’ve met and the kids remind we a lot of what we were like.
Al Letson: A big chunk of this story is about working mom. You’re a working mom.
Daffodil Altan: One of the most powerful things that comes out of my work and this experience is that my mom was doing the work that she was doing to make sure that I would be able to do work that I wanted to do. She didn’t want to be a janitor. Now that I’m a working mom, it’s going to be important for my daughter to see that I’m doing work that will hopefully help other people.
Al Letson: It feels like your mom laid down the foundation so you wouldn’t have to do that type of work and, also, so your daughter wouldn’t.
Daffodil Altan: Exactly. And that’s what a lot of the women who we were meeting and who participated in these projects, that’s what they were trying to do for their kids.
Al Letson: Daffodil Altan is a producer for Reveal. Thank you so much for coming in.
Daffodil Altan: Thanks for having me.
Al Letson: Coming up we have a story of another working mom.
Yvette Flores: When you go into a grocery store and you hear that “beep,” that’s what I made.
Al Letson: But she had no idea that making those devices could put herself and her family at risk. That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, I’m Al Letson. You’re listening to Reveal.
Our next story takes us into the heart of Silicon Valley and the electronic factories where all the tiny magic we use in our everyday lives got started. Computers, cellphones, tablets. It turns out, there’s a cost for that tiny magic and it’s effecting people from the United States to across the world in Asia.
Reveal’s Laura Starecheski has the story.
Laura Stareches: Yvette Flores was eighteen when she got her first job back in 1975. She worked in a factory in Mountain View, California for a company called Spectra-Physics. She made barcode scanners for supermarket checkout lines.
Yvette Flores: So you know when you go into a grocery store and you hear that “beep,” that’s what I made.
Laura Stareches: At that time, those scanners were a very new thing. Yvette hadn’t even seen one in a store herself. When she got to work, she would go into a tiny room with almost no ventilation. She’d put on a white smock and a paper mask and then she’d mix these liquid chemicals in a beaker with a gritty powder.
Yvette Flores: It was very powdery. It looked green. I would call it green junk.
Laura Stareches: She’d heat that liquid with a blowtorch and use the mixture to fuse two pieces of glass together. That was her job. The fumes were strong.
Yvette Flores: It got so hot in there I would have to go into the other room. That wasn’t any better but it was more circulation there to breath.
Laura Stareches: Years went by as Yvette work in that little room. She got married. In 1979 she had her son Mark.
Yvette Flores: When Mark was born, he had medical problems.
Laura Stareches: For one thing, his head was covered in bright red marks called hematomas.
Yvette Flores: It was like blood blisters on his head. His eyes were crossed. His hips were dislocated.
Laura Stareches: No one explained anything to Yvette about the cause of Mark’s problems and she didn’t ask.
Yvette Flores: It didn’t dawn on me. I just went, that’s my son. When can I take him home.
Laura Stareches: About two thirds of the workers in those early electronics factories were young women like Yvette. If they got hurt on the job, occupational medicine specialist, Dr. Joe LaDou was the guy some of them saw. LaDou didn’t know a lot about what these new companies were making or how they were making it, but he soon learned that many workers used hydrofluoric acid to etch lines into computer chips.
Dr. Joe LaDou: I saw hundreds and hundreds of hydrofluoric acid splashes on people.
Laura Stareches: And when this acid gets on your skin, it can go straight through down to the bone. Some of the burns were so bad, workers were losing parts of their bodies.
Dr. Joe LaDou: Fingers and toes. Noses. Just horrific.
Laura Stareches: Patients would stumble into his clinic, barely awake.
Dr. Joe LaDou: They were in first stage anesthesia.
Laura Stareches: From inhaling the solvents they used on the job. LaDou would ask his patients, what did you breathe in? Very few could tell him. We tried asking the companies.
Dr. Joe LaDou: I got nowhere doing that for years.
Laura Stareches: So LaDou got creative. He developed sources inside the companies and state agencies. People he could get information from.
Dr. Joe LaDou: Always sworn to secrecy. Always dealing with, you don’t ever want to let anyone know that I gave this to you.
Laura Stareches: LaDou got his hands on enough data to find that workers in the semi-conductor factories, where chips were made, had occupational illnesses at four times the rate of other industries and it wasn’t just workers feeling the effects, but their kids too.
Dr. Joe LaDou: Miscarriages, congenital malformations or birth defects in the children.
Laura Stareches: Sending ripple effects decades into the future. Into the lives of those families today.
That’s Yvette Flores with her son Mark at their home in San Jose. Yvette’s the woman who worked in a barcode scanner factory, heating up that green powder with a blowtorch.
Yvette Flores: You’re tired? Okay you want to get your pajamas on.
Laura Stareches: Mark’s thirty-five, but his brain works a lot like the brain of a two or three year old.
Yvette Flores: You got to hang your shirt up. Can you do that? You need help?
Laura Stareches: Yvette’s been taking care of Mark since he was born. She never connected his problems to her job at Spectra-Physics until one day about six years ago when she was driving in her car. She turned on the radio and heard this.
Radio Announcer: Birth defects have been linked to toxic chemicals and solvents used in semiconductor and computer chip clean rooms. If your child was born with skeletal, organ or limb deformities…
Laura Stareches: Yvette called the number in the ad, she started working with a lawyer, who eventually figured out that that green powder she’d been working with was ground leaded glass. It turned out that in that tiny room, Yvette had been breathing lead fumes for five years. The company had never warned her.
Yvette Flores: They had to see me pregnant. They knew and I wish they would’ve just pulled me out of there and just said, you can’t work there no more. If I would’ve known…I would’ve ran so fast. There’s no excuse.
Laura Stareches: Yvette won a settlement from Spectra-Physics in 2013. The company didn’t return my calls, but in a court filing, they maintained that it hadn’t been proven that Mark’s condition was caused by chemical exposure in their factory.
Al Letson: That was Reveals’ Laura Starecheski and at this point you might be thinking a company like Spectra-Physics could never get away with exposing workers to such dangerous chemicals today, right? Jim Morris from the Center for Public Integrity is going to help us tackle that one. Jim works on worker safety and he brought us Mark and Yvette’s story.
Jim says, when it comes to chemical exposure, factory workers are actually less protected than the rest of us.
Jim Morris: Cancer risks from chemical exposures that would never be tolerated outside the plant fence are not only tolerated, but legal inside the plant.
Al Letson: This is for a couple reasons. First, OSHA, the federal agency charged with protecting workers’ safety sets legal limits for how much of a chemical is safe to breathe. Most of those limits are based on science from the 1950s and 60s. Even OSHA has admitted they don’t do enough to protect workers from dangerous chemicals.
Jim Morris: Chemicals that can cause cancer. Chemicals that have reproductive effects, can cause heart disease, severe respiratory disease and it’s all perfectly legal.
Al Letson: And when companies do break the rules, even in the most extreme ways, the federal workplace safety law doesn’t do much to punish them.
Jim Morris: Right now if you commit and egregious act that results in a worker’s death, that’s a misdemeanor. The most you can get is six months in jail. If you kill and endangered species, you can go to jail for a year. It quite literally is true that you can get in more trouble for killing wildlife than you can for killing a worker.
Al Letson: Today there are millions of electronics workers all around the world in places where labor laws are even less strict, which is where reporter Sandra Bartlett takes over the story and takes us to Asia. First stop, South Korea. What many people call the Republic of Samsung.
Sandra Bartlett: I’m on a busy street in Seoul outside the global offices of Samsung Electronics. Rows of people are sitting on thin cushions on the cold sidewalk listening to a singer. I can’t understand the Korean words, but I can tell they’re sad. The song ends and a man with short grey hair walks to the front of the crowd. [inaudible 00:36:50] nods and starts his story of a taxi driver’s fight against one of the largest corporations in the world.
[inaudible 00:36:57] talks about his daughter Yumi. She was diagnosed with leukemia less than two years after she started to work in a Samsung electronics factory. He describes how she died in the back of his taxi on the way home from a chemotherapy treatment. She was twenty-two years old. After Yumi’s death, [inaudible 00:37:19] made a worker’s compensation claim. It was rejected and he went to court. In 2011, the court said there wasn’t scientific proof to link the factory work with leukemia, but it said the constant exposure to toxic chemicals had caused or at least accelerated the development of leukemia.
[inaudible 00:37:37] is still waiting for the compensation to be paid. Tonight’s memorial is the eighth anniversary of Yumi’s death. But this annual event is no longer Yumi’s alone.
Speaker 29: Not only for Yumi, but for other occupational victims. Not only from Samsung but from all the electronic industry that we know.
Sandra Bartlett: Occupational health doctor [inaudible 00:38:00] works for the Korean Institute of Labor Safety and Health. She volunteers with the organizers of this evening, and umbrella group of non-profits called, Sharp. Kong points to a wall of photos. She says they’re former electronic workers who died since 2005. What startles me is how young they are. Twenty one, twenty four, twenty six, twenty eight. Dead from leukemia, brain cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer. Kong says they’ve documented 300 cases.
Dr. Kong: Many people say, even the company, sometimes they argue that this number looks big but it does not mean anything. As a person, myself, as a doctor, this is really big alarm.
Sandra Bartlett: Korean women who work in the electronics industry have a significantly higher risk of miscarriage and menstrual problems. That’s according to study published in May of 2015 by the US based Public Library of Science. The data came from national health insurance claims between 2008 and 2012. The study pointed out that reproductive problems are warnings for other health risks, such as cancer.
The morning after the memorial, I take a train to the city of [inaudible 00:39:20] and then a taxi to a three story apartment building above a tire repair shop. There’s a folded wheelchair leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs. I climb to the second floor apartment, take off my shoes and enter a tiny room without furniture. Hoon [inaudible 00:39:38] sits on a cushion against the wall hugging her knees. Hoon looks younger than thirty-eight, her long hair pulled back into a ponytail. Hoon was recruited by Samsung in high school during the spring exams the company holds to find new workers. As many as 200,000 young people register to take the test each year.
Hoon: [translated] I though five years will be enough time for me to make money and wanted to come back and do some business or sell something with my mother.
Sandra Bartlett: Hoon glued wires onto electronic pieces on a circuit board using a cream, she found out later, may have been lead based. She developed cold and flu symptoms and problems with her menstrual cycle. Doctors couldn’t tell her what was wrong. In 2005, four years after she left Samsung, an MRI revealed a brain tumor and she had it removed. Now she has trouble speaking.
Hoon: [translated] After the operation I found myself having become a disabled person. At first I thought it was my fate, I tried to comfort myself, but as time went by I got angrier.
Sandra Bartlett: Hoon still can’t walk because of balance problems and she has limited use of her hands.
Hoon: [translated] When I think about my life, I don’t think it exists anymore. I don’t think my life is there anymore.
Sandra Bartlett: Hoon made a claim for worker’s compensation and was denied. But something has shifted in Korea.
TV Announcer 2: …electronics has officially apologized and promised compensation to workers who have gotten incurable diseases…
Sandra Bartlett: In May of 2014, after years of ignoring the memorials and demonstrations, Samsung’s Vice Chairman Kwon Oh-Hyun made a public apology for the sickness of it’s workers on National TV.
TV Announcer 3: …saying the company was sincerely sorry for having neglected the pain of the victims and their families and for not having settled the issue earlier.
Sandra Bartlett: The company promised to compensate the sick workers or the families of workers who died. Hoon is one of those people Samsung is promising to compensate. I asked to meet with somebody from Samsung, but the company said an interview would interfere with the compensation negotiations. It had one it’s public relations staff Park [inaudible 00:42:03] record answers to my questions.
Park said Samsung is offering compensation because it’s the right thing to do.
Park: Not because we have any legal or court order mandates to do so or even any scientific evidence to link these illnesses to the workplace.
Sandra Bartlett: She also says workers are protected from the chemicals they handle.
Park: All Samsung employees receive information during mandated training about the chemicals they handle, including possible harm posed by those substances.
Sandra Bartlett: I wanted to see the training materials, but was told internal policies could not be shared with me. Big companies like Apple and Samsung say protective equipment, automation and air circulation protect workers. But the companies don’t manufacture all the components that go into their cellphone, tablets or computers. There are hundreds of subcontractors who make parts for many companies. Even Samsung makes components for Apple phones.
The electronics industry is global and restless. Like a flock of birds, when one company changes direction, they all do. Vietnam is the newest destination. Shift change at a Samsung factory near Hanoi is amazing to watch. Young women and men walking from every direction. Hundreds of scooters buzz along the road like an advancing army. From the highway come the buses. Bus after bus, after bus snaking into the parking lot. About 40,000 people work in this factory. Divided by two shifts, that means close to 20,000 people are starting their day. For half an hour it’s buzzing scooters, honking buses. And then it’s over and you can hear the birds again.
In a recent study of three factories, the non-profit center for development and integration in Hanoi found many workers with headaches and dizziness and reproductive problems. The center’s managing director, Yoong [inaudible 00:44:11] Ang says this is the first study to identify hazards in the industry.
Ang: It’s a new industry. There isn’t any research. But from our research we see that electronics is not safe.
Sandra Bartlett: Yoong says workers need to be educated about their work environment. Ted Smith is helping with that. Smith is an American environmentalist who started the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in 1982. Today he’s the coordinator for the international campaign for responsible technology. He travels all over Asia training workers, labor unions and doctors about the risks of working with chemicals.
Ted Smith: We do a number of exercises where the workers get involved in mapping their own factory so that they can identify where the hazards are.
Sandra Bartlett: Smith says what’s missing from the training is knowing the names of those hazards. The chemicals.
Ted Smith: What we’re trying to do through this training is to develop enough pressure from the workers themselves, as well as from other sources, to get the companies to make this public.
Sandra Bartlett: In the meantime a database of chemicals is being built. Smith is working with Northwestern University researchers and environmentalists from around the world.
Ted Smith: We’ve really had to do it from scratch. It has over 1,100 chemicals on it. Many of them have very well defined, scientific data behind them identifying them as carcinogens or reproductive toxins or neuro-toxins.
Sandra Bartlett: Once the list is made public later this year, Smith hopes the companies will respond by revealing the chemicals they use. The next step would be to convince them to replace the worst chemicals. Smith says that’s where public pressure might make a difference.
Al Letson: Sandra Bartlett is an independent journalist based out of Toronto. Her work is supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Finally this hour, we’re going to take a look back at a historic battle over worker’s rights, started in California’s Salinas Valley, known as the Salad Bowl of the World. The fight was over a simple tool. The short handled hoe.
Hector de la Ro: That’s the short hoe. Go ahead.
Al Letson: When Hector de la Rosa worked in the fields in California in the 60s, this was his tool.
Hector de la Ro: Well it’s a regular hoe and it has five inches…
Al Letson: It looks like a standard gardening tool, but when growers forced workers to use it to maintain huge fields of lettuce and rows of cauliflower for twelve hour days, this tool became a torture device. To use it you have to bend over, not quite like you’re on your knees, but close. Once you’ve cleared the plant you’re working on, you then advance, still stooped over, to the next plant. And on and on and on. The short hoe, or cortito in Spanish, became the symbol of cruelty and oppression. Some workers, like Hector, started to organize to end its reign.
Hector de la Ro: We were specifically on one issue and that is abolishing the short hoe.
Al Letson: In 1966 Hector began working at the brand new California, rural legal assistance office where eventually he connected with a lawyer, fresh out of law school to tackle the short hoe.
Hector de la Ro: A young hippie, recently graduated attorney by the name of Mo Jardain and he says, I’ll take that case.
Mo Jardain: I had curly hair, yeah it was like a bush of hair.
Al Letson: At 72 he’s still got that bushy hair. Hector wasn’t the only one who wanted Mo to get involved. He also caught the attention of one up and coming labor organizer of one Cesar Chavez.
Mo Jardain: Yeah we talked about doing something about two problems really. One was stoop labor and then something about farm workers dying from the heat.
Al Letson: He started his legal research early one morning in the field working with the short handled hoe.
Mo Jardain: Before that [inaudible 00:48:08] in Salinas Valley. I was ready to quit and at lunch I went and laid by my VW Bus. I didn’t want to get up and then Hector got me up. By the end of the day you can’t believe they’ll come back there and do it again.
Al Letson: Mo could barely stand it for a shift, yet hundreds of thousands of laborers all over California were working under these conditions day after day. Mo’s case grew out of his first hand knowledge. Here he is explaining the legal strategy to a news crew in 1973.
Mo Jardain: The first thing we did was took a survey and we learned that the incidents of permanent, totally disabling back problems was about twice as high where they use the short-handled hoe as where they don’t. We then spoke to a number of doctors and everyone of them said there’s no questions that that ruins people’s back, bending over all day.
Al Letson: Farm owners defended the tool because they thought it made the work more precise and easier for the boss to keep tabs on the workers. If you weren’t stooped over, you weren’t working.
Mo Jardain: In days of slavery, the slave owners had whips to keep the farm workers bent over and doing their job. In 1970, they had the short handled hoe.
Al Letson: Eventually Mo got to argue his case before the California Supreme Court.
Mo Jardain: Seven older white guys who would decided whether farm workers would continue to be stooped over or not. I really was nervous. Once it starts it’s like playing football or playing anything. The first play and there ain’t no fear no more.
Al Letson: Mo aced it. The judges ruled with the farm workers and the state of California banned the harmful tool. Crews got long handled hoes and about six months after the decision, Bud Antle, one of the growers who opposed the ban found that the work was just as good. Workers actually covered more ground.
Then something nearly unprecedented happened. Bud went out of his way to admit he was wrong. He’s his son Rick.
Rick Antle: My father was interviewed by the local TV station and he stood there and he says, hey listen, we regret that we fought the way we did. We were wrong but let’s all move on together. I think that was the spirit of what happened. There’s times when we do have to intervene and create rules in order to effectuate change.
Al Letson: Change is hard and there’s often a natural resistance to doing things a different way, even if it’s as small and simple as extending the length of a wooden handle. It can take organizers, doctors and a young hippie lawyer pushing for years, but those battles are important. Even small change can make real, meaningful difference.
This song is by Augustine Lira, a farmer worker who used el cortito as a kid.
That story was produced by Ike Sriskandarajah. If you want to talk to us about one of our stories, you can always reach us on Facebook or Twitter. Our show was produced by Julia B. Chan, Delaney Hall, Peter Haden, Laura Starecheski, Michael Montgomery, Neena Satija, Ike Sriskandarajah and Amy Walters.
Thanks to our editor Andy Donohue for his work on Rape on the Night Shift. Our lead sound designer and engineer is my man Mr. Jay-Breezy, Jim Briggs. Our editorial director is Robert Salladay and our managing director is Christa Scharfenberg. Deb George is our senior editor, Susanne Reber is our executive edior. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan.
Our theme music today is from Camerado/Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
I’m Al Letson and remember there is always more to the story.