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A group of about 30 community activists from Chicago's Austin neighborhood, and throughout the city, converged Tuesday at the flagship manufacturing facility of the Ferrara Pan Candy Company, 7301 Harrison St. in Forest Park, demanding to speak to the company's CEO, Todd Siwak.
They claim that the company has used two temp agencies — REM and Elite Staffing — "whose job it was to target Mexican workers, make them work in sweatshop-like conditions and shutout other workers" from employment at its plants in Forest Park and Bellwood, according to Dan Gilroth, an activist with the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACC).
Ferrara Candy Co. is the maker of such ubiquitous sweetened treats as Jawbusters, Boston Bake Beans, Lemonheads and Red Hots. The company, which was founded in 1908 by the Ferrara family, was bought out by a private equity firm in 2012.
Charles Perry, the director of community organizing at the Westside Health Authority (WHA), stood in front of an unmanned receptionist's window in the plant's receiving lobby, hoping to get Siwak on the phone. Several other activists stood outside in front of the plant's entrance with signs that read: "We won't buy what we can't make," and "The system can't work if we don't work."
Perry said that his Austin-based organization, which connects job-seeking residents in that community with employment opportunities throughout the metropolitan area — often sending them to temp agencies that then funnel them to companies like Ferrara Candy Co. — has been getting a stream of complaints from its clients about their working conditions.
He referenced the case of Ronald Parker, 21, who was allegedly sent home from Ferrara's Bellwood facility after he was told that he needed to shave his beard.
"But when the temp agency showed him the [orientation] tape of how to work here, [the employees] have beard guards," Perry said. "In that video, it says that beard guards will be part of the equipment"
John Conversa, the Forest Park plant manager, confirmed that the beard guards were shown in the video, but that the video that shows workers wearing the equipment was only made for full-time workers."
"So, [the beard guards] are just for full-time workers — not temp workers?" Perry asked.
"Correct," Conversa said.
Perry said that, along with disparities in the availability of equipment, he also got complaints from workers who claimed that they were told by Ferrara supervisors to keep quiet about injuries received on the job or risk losing their temporary employment; who were employed with the company for six months to a year without receiving a raise; who were shorted on their pay; and who were overlooked by the company in favor of Mexican workers — who the activists say may tolerate more oppressive working conditions than their African American colleagues.
Gilroth said that Ronald Parker, who wasn't present at the protest, had also worked two twelve-hour shifts two weeks ago and was only paid for one.
"He told us, 'If I speak up about it, then I will never come back to work here again,'" Giloth recalled the man saying.
The activists claimed that the larger dynamic at play is the symbiotic relationship between large companies and temp agencies, which allow the companies to offload the responsibility of paying benefits and living wages, and providing safe working conditions, to their workers.
"Most Fortune 500 companies are starting to use staffing agencies, instead of hiring directly," Perry said. "That way, it takes the responsibility off of the companies. Where they may pay a staffing agency $17 per person — the person who's actually doing the work is only getting $8.25. So they're working half for themselves and half for the staffing agency, which is not fair."
Perry said that the WHA often loads up their clients in vans, transports them to temp agencies, assist them in filling out applications and ensure that their clients make it to the jobs at four AM the next day.
"Once they got [to the job], then it's the temp agency's job to contract them out to a facility and they would take them there, but they wouldn't come and pick them back up."
Perry said he's fielded complaints from clients, many of whom live on the city's west side, who have been virtually stranded in the western suburbs in the early morning hours, because public transportation isn't typically available during that time.
"Now, they have to figure a way from out there to get back home and the temp agency charges them to get dropped off," he said.
"Mind you, these are poor people who are trying to make a living for themselves — folks who have been incarcerated who don't want to do crime any longer and they're trying to make a living for their families. So when you have something like this, you're pushing the people least among us back into a life of criminality and we're trying to stop that."
Shaquan Reece, 25, was once contracted out by Elite Staffing to companies such as Frito Lay, substantiated much of Perry's criticisms.
"I was working for Elite staffing for like a year and a half — coming consistently. I wasn't eligible to get a raise. They expected me to do twelve-hour shifts. They provided the transportation, but they wouldn't pick us back up. If you come and set up at three in the morning, they would pick and choose who they wanted to go out," Reece said. "And I know the percentage of blacks and Latinos. It [would be] like 15 percent black and maybe 45 percent Latino — but when it would come time to sign up, they'd pick more Latinos before they picked us, saying [that blacks] have to be bilingual. Or they would put us on a line with team leaders who don't speak English at all," she said.
"If you didn't come with your [equipment and supplies] they weren't going to supply them. But the Latinos, they were supplying gloves and extra coats and things like that. Sometimes, they'd make Latinos line leaders within six months and they would get a vest. It's like, I've been here a year-and-a-half. Why am I not eligible for that opportunity, too? They say you have to be bilingual, but I don't think that's fair, because if you put me on the line with a line leader who doesn't speak English at all, why don't they have to be bilingual as well? Why does it only have to be me who has to be versatile in both languages?"
Reece said that, after more than a year with Elite, she was still getting paid the minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. Perry and Giloth said that companies and staffing agencies expect temp workers to labor twice as hard for half the pay. They suspect that companies are more willing to hire Mexican workers, since they're typically more willing to put up with labor abuses.
"There's a huge disparity here between Latinos and African Americans who are coming here and looking for these jobs. They are not being selected," said Virgil Crawford, an activist with WHA.
Giloth estimates that Ferrara's Forest Park facility, which he says is wholly reliant on temp workers to man its manufacturing line, employs roughly 200 such workers between shifts and for a typical week. He said that he obtained the figure by talking to Mexican workers at the plant, who pieced the number together department-by-department.
Perry said that 16 months ago, he and other activists were at this same location protesting about the hiring disparity between blacks and Latinos. He noted that, after the conversation, Ferrara did begin to hire more blacks, but the worker mistreatment continued.
The activists wanted to present their concerns and conditions to Siwak personally. Those conditions included: an end to the alleged discrimination in hiring; equal and fair treatment on the job; reliable schedules; a clear path from temp to direct hires; no more late or short paychecks; and a partnership with the community to ensure that those changes were implemented.
As the group waited for Siwak to materialize — Conversa said that the CEO was at the company's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, but that he would try reaching him via phone — they began to sing Civil Rights-era songs.
"Ain't gonna let nobody, turn us around, turn us around," they sang. "We shall not, we shall not be moved …"
Gilroth suspected the company was engaging in a stall tactic, even as Conversa ensured the crowd that he was genuinely trying to reach Siwak. After an hour of waiting, Perry opted to hand Conversa a letter for Siwak, demanding that the CEO respond by Friday this week. Until then, the group vowed to protest the company's products.
"We can still buy the candy, but we can't help make it at a livable wage?" Perry said.
John Sheehan, a Forest Park resident with the TIF Illumination Project, said that he believes that Ferrara is receiving taxpayer funded Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars.
"I have to pay for my own discrimination?" Gilroth said. "It used to be free."
Attempts to contact representatives from Ferrara Candy were unsuccessful.