Major US retailers for over a decade have chosen to ignore signs of labor abuses within their supply chain, as port trucking companies force their drivers into debt, making them work up to 20 hours a day, sometimes paying them pennies per hour.
To get from manufacturer to retailer, goods are transported by port trucking companies that use independent drivers, often coercing them to sign truck lease purchase contracts they don’t understand. A driver must then pay all expenses for the use and maintenance of his truck from the low wages he receives. If he becomes sick and falls behind with the payments, the company can fire the employee, seize the truck and tens of thousands of dollars the driver has paid toward buying it.
Heavily lobbied by the trucking industry, Target, Home Depot, Costco, Walmart, JC Penney and other retailers have chosen to ignore reports of port trucking company labor abuses. They can look the other way because there are no laws requiring them to police their vendors or the subcontractors those vendors hire.
Trucking Companies Push Costs Onto Drivers
In 2008, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California banned older trucks from entering the harbor. Port trucking companies were suddenly faced with a $2.5 billion problem of replacing 16,000 aging big rigs with newer, cleaner trucks. Their solution was a lease-to-own program to push the cost onto individual drivers. Trucking companies arranged to finance their fleet, then passed on the cost of each truck to an individual driver. By that time, most port trucking companies were employing drivers as low-paid independent contractors who had to cover their own expenses.
Coalition for Responsible Transportation Fights Port Trucking Regulation
A lobbying group of retailers, shippers and trucking companies led by retailer Target called the Coalition for Responsible Transportation was formed to steer policy while regulators decided the rules for clean trucks. The coalition and its parent organization, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, fought port trucking-specific bills that would have converted California drivers to employees, given cities the right to regulate port trucking, and held retailers themselves liable in civil cases that workers brought against their vendors.
To date, the companies have paid lobbyists over $12.6 million to fight bills that would have protected the rights of port drivers, even after hundreds of drivers have told regulators they were treated as modern-day indentured servants. U.S. brands and their lobbying associations opposed a bill in California that would have criminalized wage theft in low-wage industries and another that would have made it easier for drivers to recoup stolen wages. They fought bills that would have converted port drivers to fully protected employees and others that would have enabled state agencies to punish trucking companies with violations.
Drivers Seek Recourse through Labor Commissioner and the Courts
Drivers have made some progress in wage disputes. Between 2011 and 2017, 875 complaints were filed against port trucking companies with the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE). By 2017 the Labor Commissioner’s office issued determinations in at least 375 of those cases, finding the drivers were in fact employees and therefore owed over $40 million in stolen wages and penalties. Drivers have also taken their case to court as employees in dozens of individual and class action law suits to address violations of the California Labor Code.
1990s Anti-Sweatshop Movement Spotlights Labor Abuse
Companies are obsessed with branding and spend millions of dollars on advertising to polish the image of their products. During the 1990s, retailers at first chose to ignore claims of child labor abuses, forced overtime, and other schemes to exploit workers in overseas manufacturing operations until public pressure through the anti-sweatshop movement raised awareness of sweatshop labor, forcing manufacturers to monitor and clean up their operations. After a decade of denying any wrongdoing, Nike, Gap, and other manufactures finally admitting that their workers were exploited and abused, and pledged to improve conditions of the millions of people paid a few pennies a day to make their expensive products.
Unlike with overseas manufacturing plants, there has been no pressure to force a cleanup of the shipping industry that transports goods to retailers. Activist pressure and public awareness could force retailers to acknowledge this other form of worker abuse.
For more information about trucking laws and liability, visit our website at: www.portlandtruckaccidentlawyer.com.
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