It’s 7 a.m. and Juan didn’t work again. He was sent home since it was raining. He works at a car wash, along with more than 30 other workers, and they, too, left with empty pockets.
The workers are not employees, they when they company the wants them to work.
They show up when their boss tells them to, but they know that failure to appear or any tardiness will only cause the owners to not give them any work. It is modern slavery because the employer knows the economic needs of the workers.
Juan is a 39-year-old man from Michoacan, Mexico. He moved to the Unites States when he was 15-years-old. He’s been working in the car wash industry for a long time.
“In 24 years, I have never earned more than $8-per-hour,” he said.
The car wash owners chose to close their business due to the rain. The house never loses, but the workers do.
For years, car wash owners have been abusing their employees without any sanctions against them. Their prosperous business keeps growing while their workers are poorer, because they are invisible. Cost of living has gone up but their salaries haven’t.
Rent is due this Friday but the weather threatens Juan’s pocket. He knows he’s in trouble with his landlord. He looks desperate.
His wife, Veronica, picks him up and looks at him, devastated. Another day without an income. They’re definitely not going to make it.
Veronica tells him she thought at least they could buy a loaf of bread and milk for the kids. They’ve already given up their telephones and pawned their children’s bicycles.
“We are going to a food bank today. We don’t even have sugar at home. Our kids have to stay in the after-school program so they can have better meals there,” Veronica tells me.
Juan has been working at the car wash for two months but says there are people who have been working there for years, and they only earn 25 cents more.
On a very good day, Juan and his co-workers can clean around 500 cars without a break. He says that his boss even buys pizza for them so they don’t stop working, not even for a minute. They run from car to car, washing and towel-drying the vehicles, sometimes for 10 hours. The workers depend on the tips they earn from the customers, since they earn $7 dollars an hour and, for most of them, that is the only income they receive.
His total take of $56 a day is not enough to feed a family, pay bills and gas.
Juan’s hands are very scratchy due to the chemicals to which he’s exposed. He says he sometimes feels dizzy from the strong fumes of waxes, polishes and sealants and from cleaning rims with acid without wearing gloves.
Another worker, 42-year-old Ricardo Lopez, has been working at the car wash for 12 years. I ask him if being there for so many years guarantees him a salary.
“I have to save for the rainy days,” said Lopez. “Today, I arrived at 7 a.m. but we didn’t open until 9.30 a.m.
If there are no customers, we don’t get anything. Time starts counting when customers arrive.”
According to an American University Labor and Employment Law Forum, “Los Angeles car wash workers signed the first union contract of the industry on Oct. 25, 2011.
The agreement was reached after years of effort led by the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, a coalition of the United Steelworkers and the non-profit CLEAN (Community-Labor-Environmental Action Network).”
The agreement allows workers to get a wage increase and better safety and health protection.
But, in San Diego, some car wash owners pay all their employees by check. That means that an hour or more of the workers’ hard work from their already small check goes to pay the fee to cash it if they do not have a checking account.
People that drive by the busy corner of Jackson Street, can see the non-stop activity of the workers. In the middle of the street, some people are begging for coins to get something to eat or drink.
Most of the car wash employees work in deplorable conditions. Much more needs to be done to protect the car wash workers in San Diego. If they are not represented by a union and the owners are not prosecuted for labor violations, the abuses will continue. Workers need to get a wage increase, recover stolen wages and have safer working conditions.
On Oct. 25, 2011, The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations news blog read: “Los Angeles is the epicenter of the car wash industry and the epicenter of innovative organizing, particularly by immigrant workers.”
Humble immigrants have set an example to other car washes.