Workers at Chicago carwashes, by and large Latino immigrants, are victims of labor abuse and wage theft, according to a study released Friday by the University of Illinois.
The report "Clean Cars, Dirty Work" was prepared by the university's School of Labor and Employment Relations and compiles data and case histories from the experiences of almost a third of the workers at 70 percent of carwashes in the Windy City.
Some 204 men were interviewed with an average age of 34. The workers have little command of English and most are from Mexico.
Their responses showed that most earn less than the minimum wage, which in Illinois is $8.25 an hour, work more than 40 hours a week without extra pay for overtime, and in many cases are forced to share tips with the carwash owners.
Almost all the workers had incomes below the federal poverty level for a family and nearly a quarter were living in extreme poverty.
The employees surveyed also lost an average of $4,400 a year to wage theft.
"The question to be answered is whether exploitative working conditions are the practices of a few 'bad apples' or if these standards are customary throughout the local industry," the study's lead author, Profesor Robert Bruno, said.
Chicago is estimated to have as many as 200 carwashes employing more than 600 people. Nationwide, some 15,000-22,000 such establishments are estimated to be in business, employing more than 500,000 workers and with annual sales of $6 billion.
The study points to other violations of labor law to do with health and safety regulations, such as not providing equipment for protection against risks, not warning about dangers of the workplace or any elements that might be harmful to health, not offering clean drinking water free, and not providing a protected area for breaks and meals.
More than half of those interviewed suffered cuts on the job, more than 40 percent suffered skin rashes and more than a third felt nausea or dizziness from using chemical cleaning products.
"Literally, this job is killing these people to enrich their employers," Bruno said at a press conference to present the report.
"This is supposed to be the country of opportunities, but I can assure you the American dream is hard to fulfill," one of the workers surveyed, Mexican immigrant Martin Cervantes, said through a translator.
For his part, Salvadoran immigrant Oscar Olivares said carwash owners treat workers "as if we were animals."
The study recommends the creation of a special commission to monitor the carwash industry in Illinois and to combat the "endemic" labor abuse.
The commission should also support efforts to teach workers their rights, which ought to include training in health and safety regulations.
Meanwhile the Arise Chicago group has launched a campaign to improve working conditions for "carwasheros." EFE