After a six-month investigation, Annie Hylton uncovers third-world working conditions and rampant sexual harassment at industrial laundry facilities serving Manhattan hospitals, hotels, and restaurants.
At Dissent, she recounts how workers, who went without health and safety training and personal protective equipment, routinely handled linens contaminated by human blood, urine, vomit, and feces. When workers weren’t dealing directly in others’ sh*t, they were forced to endure it. One manager routinely preyed on migrant women workers who had little English and less recourse; women were subject to unwanted touching and lewd suggestions. And after they finally stood up to complain? Retaliation, of course, in the form of reduced hours and more strenuous duties.
There are more than fifty industrial laundries in and around New York that employ thousands of workers, most of whom are recent immigrants, mainly women. These workers typically operate in noisy, dirty, stressful conditions, and are frequently exposed to harmful chemicals. Meg Fosque, an organizer at Make the Road New York who testified before New York City Council in 2015, described the laundry industry as one plagued by rampant violations of labor law and exploitation of the largely immigrant workforce by “unscrupulous employers.” Fosque concluded, “the industry as a whole has a disturbing track record and is in need of oversight.”
Until legislation was passed in 2016, there were no comprehensive and enforceable standards or licenses for industrial laundries in New York.
In November 2011, twenty-four-year-old Milton Anzora, a laundry worker at a commercial facility in Long Island called Prestige Industries, was crushed to death by a conveyer shuttle (this facility has since closed). In 2015, OSHA found that the company continued to expose employees to similar hazards at its Paterson facility. “It is unacceptable when a company continues to neglect basic safety and health procedures, especially after experiencing a fatality. Prestige Industries’ deliberate failure to uphold its responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace is an indication that worker safety and health is not a priority, which is intolerable,” said Robert Kulick, OSHA’s regional administrator in New York.
The largely female and immigrant workforce has meant that some workers are also subject to sexual harassment or assault, much like that faced by Gonzalez and her coworkers. Workers whose rights are violated often do not come forward because of their immigration status or because they lack legitimate union representation, allowing the cycle of abuse to continue.