In 2012, Isaura Martinez was working as a temp in Chicago. Like the city’s many other immigrant workers employed by temp agencies, she boarded vans each day to work in hazardous conditions at a rotating series of factories and warehouses, often without safety training and protective equipment. Those rides, arranged by the agencies, came with high fees, as did cashing her paychecks. At the end of the day, she earned less than minimum wage.
When ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell approached her as part of his 2013 investigation into the abuses of temporary workers employed in the supply chains of Sony, Smirnoff, Ty Inc., and other major corporations, Martinez was initially apprehensive about speaking with him about her experiences.
“I was afraid of the retaliation,” said Martinez. “My fear was that the raiteros, the van drivers, would no longer take me to work, and that the temp agency would not hire me because I had complained and exposed the abuse I was suffering.”
It was after a particularly tough night, in which a van driver left an elderly worker behind and then spat expletives at him upon returning to the factory, when Martinez’s outrage outweighed her fear. “For me, it wasn’t just about the way that I was being treated, but how my coworkers were being treated,” she said.
Ultimately, Martinez and hundreds of other temp workers shared their stories with Grabell to help shed light on a shadow system that is harming workers and burdening the economy as a whole. “I felt sincerely happy to get it off my chest — I freed myself,” said Martinez. “Once the stories came out, it motivated me to continue denouncing these sorts of injustices.”
Today Martinez is an organizer with the Chicago Workers Collaborative, where she advocates for stable, living wage jobs for temporary workers. In 2016, she testified about her experience at a state hearing, aiding the passage of a bill that increased protections for temp workers.
“ProPublica helped me to break my silence and fear,” she said. “Michael took the time to listen to me, and he was the first to do so. In the name of all the temp workers, thank you.”