Human Rights Index #40: Worker Abuse

TIR staff

The Human Rights Index is prepared three times a year by the University of Iowa Center for Human RightsThe Iowa Review is proud to feature the Index on its web site, to suggest the global political and socioeconomic context within which we read and write.

Human Rights Index #40

Prepared by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR)*

In The Great Transformation, published in 1944, the renowned Austro-Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi examined closely the sociopolitical upheavals that arose during the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the laissez-faire market economy that replaced the previously prevailing barter-and-trade system.  The market economy, he contended, was joined at the hip with the contemporaneous rise of the modern state.  Together they created what he called the “Market Society,” a self-regulating free market system; and together, he further observed, they were shaped by a counter movement that was society’s defense “against the perils inherent in a self-regulating market system.”  Labor law scholar Judy Fudge sums it up crisply: “[Polanyi] captured the dynamic relationship between market expansion and social institutions and provided a way of understanding the relationship between Keynesian economic expansion and the emergence of the welfare state.”[1]

Especially noteworthy from a human rights perspective, however, is the relevance of Polanyi’s analysis to our present transformative era. “It can be used,” Fudge writes, “to explain the increased interest in social rights, which has been ‘one of the side effects of globalization.’”[2]  Fudge elaborates:

Supra-national trade agreements combined with and supported by neo-liberal values and political arrangements have resulted in the transformation of the welfare state and an emphasis on the market as the best mechanism of distribution and of service provision.  The shift from a Fordist to a digital economy has restructured global and local labormarkets and has led to increasing inequality. According to the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, a problem with the current process of globalization is that it is generating unbalanced outcomes, both between and within countries. Wealth is being created, but too many countries and people are not sharing in its benefits. They also have little or no voice in shaping the process.[3]

Worse, this unbalanced transformation—a “race to the bottom”―that today dominates the worldwide quest for greater profits and larger market shares (commonly by foreign-owned corporate subsidiaries) is responsible for many instances of deliberate worker abuse and exploitation—particularly of women, children, migrant workers, and minorities who, typically, are unprotected by labor unions or other agencies capable of countermanding corporate power. The United Nations’ International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (2003), the International Labor Organization’s Convention (No. 189) on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (2011), and other such treaty initiatives are certainly steps in the right direction.  However, basically none of the world’s major powers is party to them and the correctives required by them are in any event exceedingly demanding.  The following samplings, many drawn from Iowa and other U.S.-based settings, are instructive. 

2 — Number of labor laws that must be violated before the U.S. Department of Labor will consider a factory to be a sweatshop―i.e., not providing workers with benefits, acceptable working conditions, or a living wage (Do 2014)

4 — Times more likely that a youth farm worker will die in the United States compared to other employed youth, reflecting the hazards of the sharp tools, heavy machinery, and dangerous pesticides with which they work (Human Rights Watch 2012)

6 — U.S. dollars paid to Chinese workers for three months of 90-hour work weeks after deducting wages for food and lodging, an average of approximately one-half cent per hour—these workers being subject also to a locked-in environment and to fines for allegedly arriving late, taking too long in the restroom, forgetting to turn off lights, and making mistakes (each infraction potentially costing up to two months’ pay) (Bloomberg Businessweek 2000)

12 — Minimum age that, with parental permission, children may work on large U.S. commercial farms, at a rate less than the minimum wage and for as much as 14 hours per day during peak harvest season—there being, however, no minimum age for children working on a small farm with parental permission (Human Rights Watch 2012)

24 — U.S. cents per garment earned by women in El Salvador sewing NBA jerseys for retail sale in the United States at $140 each (Global 2011)

30 —  Approximate percentage of the world’s domestic workers (at least 53 million as of 2014) who are employed in countries that exclude them from protective national labor laws (Human Rights Watch 2013)

41 — Percentage of women at Iowa meatpacking plants in 2009 who suffered unwanted touching by their employers, more than 25% of them threatened with loss of their job if they protested the sexual harassment (PBS Frontline 2013)

67 — Percent of Los Angeles garment factories found to have violated minimum wage and overtime laws, 98% of which violated workplace health and safety standards by operating under conditions such as blocked fire exits, unsanitary bathrooms, and poor ventilation, and over 50% of which may be considered "sweatshops" (Do 2014)

75 — Percentage of undocumented workers—some underage—at the Postville, Iowa branch of Agriprocessors (the largest U.S. producer of kosher meat), the majority of whom earned only $6 to $7 per hour sans overtime, and many of whom reported frequent sexual harassment and workplace accidents, some of them involving the loss of limbs (NY Times 2012) 

85 — Estimated percentage of the millions of mostly women sweatshop workers worldwide who are young women (ages 15-25), including those at some Mexican and Central American factories, who, as a condition of employment, are forced to take shots to prevent pregnancy so their employers do not have to pay maternity leave (Do 2014)

300 — Number of times since 1985 that McDonald’s has had to pay back wages as a result of class action suits by its employees for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (CNN Money 2014)

1,080 — Approximate number of Indian and Nepalese migrant workers who, since 2012, have died in Qatar while working on construction for the 2022 Qatar World Cup—these migrant workers having been subject to dangerous work sites, withheld wages, overcrowded worker dormitories, limited access to food and water (despite 12-hour work shifts in 100-degree weather), and passport confiscations (migrant workers in Qatar cannot leave the country without their employers’ permission) (LA Times 2014)        

3,015 — Minimum estimated U.S. dollars paid annually by U.S. taxpayers in public benefits to each Walmart employee due to low Walmart wages and few benefits―based on employees enrolled in Medicaid, but possibly as much as $5,815 per employee per year if based on enrollment in other programs ( 2013)        

67,200 — U.S. dollars deducted each year by Texas-based labor broker Henry’s Turkey Service from the pay of developmentally disabled men working in the company’s plant in West Liberty, Iowa—purportedly to pay for the men’s housing, though the actual rental expenses cost the company only $7,200 per year (Iowa Policy Project 2012)      

128,500 — U.S. dollars levied in fines by U.S. Department of Labor upon Fareway and Hy-Vee, two of the largest grocery store chains in Iowa and Nebraska, for violations of the child labor provisions of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act—the violations having occurred in 28 of their stores in 2011 (U.S. Department of Labor 2013)    

1,114,074 — Approximate number of workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York who, based on an authoritative 2008 survey, experienced at least one form of wage theft in a given week: 58% from minimum wage violations; 22% from overtime violations; 10% from rest break violations; and 8% from “off-the-clock” violations (Annette Bernhardt et al., Broken Laws, Uprooted Workers 2009) 

215,000,000 — Approximate number of child laborers worldwide (ages 5-17) as of 2008, 115 million working in hazardous conditions (i.e., “worst forms” of child labor)―approximately 114 million in Asia and the Pacific; 65 million in Sub-Saharan Africa; and 14 million in Latin America and the Caribbean―and of these  children, 4 in 5 were unpaid family workers (United Nations 2014)

240,000,000 — U.S. dollars awarded by an Iowa-based federal jury in 2013 to 32 mentally disabled Iowa turkey-processing plant workers who, for decades, were subjected to verbal and physical abuse, paid only 41 cents per hour, and housed in bug-infested living quarters—the amount of the award being the largest in the history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued on the workers’ behalf (Associated Press 2013) 

600,000,000 — U.S. dollars of which Iowa workers are illegally deprived each year through wage theft—a loss of roughly $60 million in tax revenue annually (Iowa City Press Citizen 2014).


*Copyright © 2013 by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR). Prepared by Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus and UICHR Senior Scholar Burns H. Weston with the generous assistance of Brittany Bermudez, a 2014 graduate of the UI College of Law, Damian Bakula, Lisa Castillo, Benjamin Clough, Joshua Despain, and Isaac Smith, each currently students at the UI College of Law. For additional facts concerning worker abuse and human rights and further information on human rights generally, please visit the UICHR web site:

[1] Judy Fudge, “The New Discourse of Labor Rights: From Social to Fundamental Rights?,” Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal (Fall 2007) 29: 29. 

[2] Id.

[3] Id.