Protesters shake candy boxes as they gather outside Ferrara Candy Company in Forest Park Oct. 28. They said the company employs almost all temporary workers and that agencies discriminate against African Americans in favor of Latinos. (Photo Michael Romain)

Charles Perry, the director of community organizing for the Westside Health Authority (WHA) in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood stood in front of an unmanned receptionist’s window in the offices of Ferrara Candy Company in Forest Park yesterday, demanding to speak to CEO Todd Siwak.

Behind Perry, roughly 20 supporters from WHA and other organizations, such as the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC), packed the small office lobby, singing folk songs.

“We shall not, we shall not be moved,” the crowd belted in unison.

The group claims that Ferrara Candy, the maker of Lemonheads, Boston Baked Beans and Red Hots, has used two staffing agencies — Remedial Environmental Manpower (REM) and Elite Staffing — “to target Mexican workers, make them work in sweatshop-like conditions and shutout other workers,” according to Dan Giloth, an activist with SACCC.

WHA, which is a social services and employment agency, sends clients out to staffing agencies, which then contracts them out to companies like Ferrara Candy. Perry said that, within the past two years, his organization has heard a stream of complaints from the roughly 75 African American clients who have been contracted out to Ferrara.

He referenced the case of Ronald Parker, 21, who was allegedly sent home from Ferrara’s Bellwood facility after he was told that he needed to shave his beard.

“But when the temp agency showed him the [orientation] tape of how to work here, [the employees] have beard guards,” Perry said. “In that video, it says that beard guards will be part of the equipment”

John Conversa, the Forest Park plant manager who confronted the group in the lobby, confirmed that the beard guards were shown in the video, but that the video that shows workers wearing the equipment was only made for full-time workers.

Perry said that, along with disparities in the availability of equipment, he also got complaints from workers who claimed that they were told by Ferrara supervisors to keep quiet about injuries received on the job or risk losing their temporary employment; who were employed with the company for six months to a year without receiving a raise; who were shorted on their pay; and who were overlooked by the company in favor of Mexican immigrant workers.

Giloth said that Ronald Parker, who wasn’t present at the protest, had also worked two 12-hour shifts two weeks ago and was only paid for one.

“He told us, ‘If I speak up about it, then I will never come back to work here again,'” Giloth recalled the man saying.

The activists claimed that the larger dynamic at play is the symbiotic relationship between large companies and temp agencies, which allow the companies to offload the responsibility of paying benefits and living wages, and providing safe working conditions, to their workers.

“Most Fortune 500 companies are starting to use staffing agencies, instead of hiring directly,” Perry said. “That way, it takes the responsibility off of the companies. Where they may pay a staffing agency $17 per person — the person whose actually doing the work is only getting $8.25. So they’re working half for themselves and half for the staffing agency, which is not fair.”

Shaquan Reece, 25, was once contracted out by Elite Staffing to companies such as Frito Lay, corroborated much of Perry’s criticisms.

She claims that, along with discriminatory hiring practices, companies often held her and her African American colleagues to different standards than Mexican workers.

“If you didn’t come with your [equipment and supplies] they weren’t going to supply them,” she said. “But the Latinos, they were supplying gloves and extra coats and things like that. Sometimes, they’d make Latinos line leaders within six months and they would get a vest. It’s like, I’ve been here a year-and-a-half. Why am I not eligible for that opportunity, too? They say you have to be bilingual, but I don’t think that’s fair, because if you put me on the line with a line leader who doesn’t speak English at all, why don’t they have to be bilingual as well? Why does it only have to be me who has to be versatile in both languages?”

Attempts to contact officials from both REM and Elite Staffing for comment were unsuccessful.

This is the second time the activists have protested at Ferrara. In 2013, they were here to protest the hiring practices of staffing agencies REM and Labor Power, which the activists claimed would largely select Latino workers for temp jobs over blacks.

Last February, according to a report by Progress Illinois, three black job applicants filed a federal class action complaint against Ferrara, REM and Labor Power in a U.S. District Court in Chicago on behalf of themselves and “‘similarly situated African-American job applicants.'”

The plaintiffs claimed that, despite their qualifications, they were repeatedly denied employment at Ferrara after applying both directly and through temp agencies. The allegations are go as far back as November 2011.

“We want to end the discrimination of African Americans and exploitation of immigrant workers,” said Elce Redmond with the South Austin Coalition Community Council at the time. “The immigrant workers who come here have to work very, very long hours. Sometimes their wages are stolen from them, and if they complain, then people say, ‘We’ll call  ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).'”

Perry said that as a result of the protests last year, Ferrara had stepped-up its hiring of black temp workers, but that the worker mistreatment hadn’t subsided.

The activists claim that as long as companies can offload the responsibility for providing safe working conditions, livable wages and benefits to staffing agencies, the problems they allege will continue.

“There’s roughly 200 temps a week at the Forest Park plant,” Giloth said. “A lot of their production lines have been totally tempted out, which is a problem in itself. Giloth said that he came with that figure by consulting with Mexican workers at the plant.

John Sheehan, a Forest Park resident and activist from the TIF Illumination Project and Civic Lab of Chicago, said that when Ferrara was family-owned, it provided well-paying jobs for generations of Forest Parkers.

“There were many well-paying jobs back then,” he said. “Many of the houses around this factory right here were built by people who worked in this factory and had full time employment and living wages.”

The Ferrara Candy Company plant has been located in Forest Park since 1959. In 2012, it merged with Catterton Partners, a private equity firm that owns Farley’s & Sathers, another candy manufacturer.

After an hour waiting in the lobby for Siwak to materialize — Conversa said that the CEO was traveling, but that he was genuinely trying to reach him on the phone — Perry handed the plant manager a letter. The organizers demanded a response by Friday, until then they vowed to boycott the company’s products.

Attempts to contact representatives from Ferrara Candy were unsuccessful.  

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