Protesters gather outside of Ferrara Pan Candy Company in Forest Park, during a demonstration last year. (Michael Romain/Staff)

Mercury Plastics, 4535 W. Fullerton, received more than $128,000 in Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) grants in 2011 and 2012, according to City of Chicago data. The money was for improvements to the facility’s electrical and plumbing systems and it was funded by taxpayers such as Ronald Parker.

Activists with the Westside Health Authority (WHA) and the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC) say that African American temporary workers such as Parker have been shutout of the hiring process by companies such as Mercury Plastics in favor of undocumented Latino workers. 

“They’re shutting out most of the African American non-Mexicans and whites,” said SACCC activist Elcie Redmond, who along with WHA activists staged a protest outside of the Mercury’s Fullerton facility in March.

Redmond noted that companies hire undocumented workers because they lack the protections of American-born workers.

“Our campaign is not to protest that jobs are going to undocumented workers,” said Redmond. “We’re protesting the fact that they’re being exploited, their wages are being stolen. If they try to speak out or organize, they’re told INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] will get involved. We want to end exploitation based on immigrant status.”

“We are demanding jobs, and the dismantling of this pervasive segregationist employment model that discriminates against African-American and other U.S. born workers — while preying on Mexican immigrant workers to do degraded jobs in abusive working conditions.” Said Charles Perry, WHA’s director of organizing.

But there’s a deeper aspect of the problem, activists say. The companies get to discriminate beneath the shield of plausible deniability, because they don’t directly oversee the hiring process. They leave that to staffing agencies.

“Mercury Plastics does no direct hiring of its hundreds of production workers. Instead, it directs all applicants to two temp agencies: Flexible Staffing in Franklin Park and MVP in Cicero,” according to a joint statement released by the WHA and SACCC.

“By the direction of the company, these agencies systematically discriminates [sic] against all non-Mexican immigrant workers. In addition, degraded working conditions at Mercury drive high turnover,” the statement notes. 

Last year, WHA and SACCC staged a protest in west suburban Forest Park outside of a Ferrara Candy factory after Parker and other temporary workers complained of being shutout of employment and, in the rare case they were hired, of discriminatory treatment by the company. 

WHA, a social services and employment agency that sends clients out to staffing agencies — which, in turn, contracts them out to companies such as Ferrara and Mercury — had fielded a stream of complaints from roughly 75 of its African American clients, many of whom are residents of Austin. 

Parker, who was a temporary worker at Ferrara’s Bellwood facility, said that he was denied access to basic safety equipment, such as beard guards. The company said that the guards were only for full-time workers, not temps. 

“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,” according to a report by the Village Free Press. 

Earlier this year, the activists met with Ferrara’s ownership to discuss the possibility of reform and to present their demands, which are similar to the ones they presented to Mercury’s ownership.

Last year at Ferrara, the protesters demanded an “end to the alleged discrimination in hiring; equal and fair treatment on the job; reliable schedules; a clear path from temp to direct hires; no more late or short paychecks; and a partnership with the community to ensure that those changes were implemented,” according to the Village Free Press. 

Redmond said that he hopes companies such as Ferrara and Mercury can partner with community hiring agencies such as WHA, instead of predatory staffing agencies. He said that WHA had once provided direct hiring services similar to those provided by the temp agencies, but that that’s no longer the case. 

“WHA has had a problem trying to place their people at companies because they have to go through these agencies,” Redmond said. “[The agencies] place them and they don’t get the jobs. What they’re doing is the policy throughout the whole industry itself and the only way we can break this industry policy is to get one of their own to do something differently.”