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Sweating It Out

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The word "sweatshop" may evoke early-19th-century America or present-day third-world countries, but local labor activists contend there's one in the county's backyard: Rankin-based W&K Steel. 

The Stop W&K Sweatshop Campaign -- made up of former W&K Steel workers Tim Hand and Aung Oo, college students, and various labor and workers' rights groups -- has been waging public opposition against W&K, a metal fabrication company. 

Hand and Oo have alleged that W&K Steel operates an unsafe facility, exposing workers to hazardous conditions, wage disparities between Americans and refugees, and mistreatment of workers. Hand and Oo wenton strike in September 2009 in protest of the conditions. W&K brass deny the accusations.

Hand and Oo testified at a Nov. 9 Allegheny County Council public-safety meeting. Oo, a Burmese refugee speaking in Karen through translator Saw Kler, said that as a fabricator, he made $10 an hour, and that he and other refugees "made half of what the Americans made." 

Hand, of Irwin, also a fabricator, presented paystubs that showed he made $18.50 an hour, for doing the same job. He then showed pay stubs for Oo and other refugees, who he says made significantly less -- down to $8 an hour. Chad Rink, a campaign leader and representative with Ironworkers Local 3, points out that the median wage estimates noted by the U.S. Department of Labor is $16.87 an hour.

"They have to work twice as hard for two hours to get paid what I get paid for one hour," Hand said in a press conference prior to the hearing. 

By the campaign's count, of the 35 employees in the ornamental shop where Oo and Hand used to work, 14 are refugees from places such as Bosnia and Burma. There are about 120 employees total in the company. 

Oo and Hand also complain of other hazardous conditions: a leaky roof in the shop that led to workers welding in puddles of water; exposed wiring; a lack of training on equipment like saws and cranes; no exhaust fans in the shop; and inadequate translation for the refugees. Hand and Rink says several other refugees and workers have corroborated the conditions but have been fearful to speak out.

"We have become refugees in my country. I was hoping I wouldn't see unjust actions when I came here," Oo testified.

W&K calls the public criticism a "smear campaign." Celeste Wilhelm, a company executive and wife of company president Edward Wilhelm, believes it stems from a failure to unionize the plant. 

Wilhelm says W&K's pay scale is based on skill level and says pay rates are "in line" with the national average. "And how many companies pay 100 percent of your health insurance?"

She also cites benefits like English as a Second Language classes funded by W&K for refugees, as well as health, life and vision insurance, vacation, paid holidays, and retirement plans. Refugees are hired through Catholic Charities and Jewish Family and Children Services. "If it weren't for the people that work for us, we wouldn't be where we are today. We try very hard to recognize that and offer them as many benefits as we can."

Wilhelm invited a City Paper reporter to tour the W&K shop. During the tour, shop foreman Scott Eicher noted that workers are given goggles, welding coats, steel-toed boots and other equipment. A cursory inspection by CP turned up no obvious evidence of exposed wiring or other problems.

Eicher says he also holds weekly safety training. Wilhelm notes that while there is no translator on staff, one is brought in when necessary. Language barriers are overcome partly through hands-on training, she says, though "eventually the English catches up to them." 

A large safety-awareness bulletin board is on the shop's front wall with nearby first-aid equipment. Wilhelm also points to a W&K safety program that's been in effect for about a year and a half. 

But campaign members argue that human-rights violations are the fundamental issue at the shop. Hand also testified that foreign workers are often forced to work overtime or threatened with losing their jobs. Wilhelm maintains that the charges against the company are "unfounded." 

The campaign has approached the county, hoping it might intervene through its "sweat-free" procurement ordinance. The measure prohibits the county from purchasing goods made in sweatshop conditions. It also sets conditions in facilities where county-purchased goods are made. Those requirements include: paying wages "which enable its workers to met their basic needs," having voluntary overtime, working no more than a 48-hour work week, and providing a safe and healthy working environment.  

John Deighan, Allegheny County's chief purchasing officer, says the county hasn't contracted with W&K Steel for any commodity or construction-related projects. But while the ordinance covers direct county projects or purchases, it does not extend to authorities or boards, something the campaign wants to change. Rink says the county housing authority, for example, has employed contractors that use W&K. 

"It's an ordinance that protects all purchases. No matter who is purchasing it, the county authorities are still taxpayer money," Rink says.

County officials say that any action against an alleged sweatshop would come from state and federal authorities. 

In the meantime, county council is weighing its options. At the Nov. 9 meeting, public safety chair Jim Burn Jr. said he would invite W&K to offer rebuttal and see what further action could be taken by the county.

Councilor Charles Martoni, whose district includes Rankin and who has taken up the issue at the group's request, says he just wants to make things better for the employees -- and the company: "We don't want to put anybody out of business."

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