First of all, I would like to thank the Board for granting me the opportunity to address them.
I am here to discuss an issue at the local Flex-N-Gate auto-parts plant that is actively harming our entire community and threatening an already tarnished University reputation.
The owner of Flex-N-Gate, Shahid Khan, is a distinguished alum of the University and a well-respected resident of the community. At the age of 16, Mr. Khan emigrated from Pakistan to the United States and earned an industrial engineering degree from this University. After graduation, Mr. Khan purchased the Flex-N-Gate Corporation and has managed it to its current state of financial prosperity. With estimated annual revenue of nearly $3 billion, Flex-N-Gate is a true success story and Mr. Khan is emblematic of an individual who achieved the American Dream.
I recognize that Mr. Khan’s astonishing personal narrative is worthy of admiration. And although Mr. Khan’s exemplary success story is rare, it echoes the narrative of many immigrants, including my own ancestry. Many immigrants have the same aspirations as Mr. Khan and his story is a testament to the plausibility of the American Dream. But unfortunately, Mr. Khan, now subjects his employees to the very same injustices that led him to flee his native land. As a child of fellow south Asian immigrants, it deeply saddens me to learn his largely immigrant workforce is not being provided the opportunities to improve their socioeconomic status, but are being exploited and subjected to a life-threatening work environment.
The conditions of work at the Urbana factory of Flex-N-Gate are horrendous. Workers have identified more than 30 violations of OSHA standards. A majority of these violations regard exposure to the carcinogenic chemical agent hexavalent chromium. Workplace exposure to hexavalent chromium is proven to cause lung cancer and irritation or damage to the nose, throat, eyes, and skin.
The adverse health effects of this carcinogen can be mitigated, only if provided with adequate safety equipment. But according to the workers, management at Flex-N-Gate has not provided employees the basic equipment to do so. To reduce overhead, OSHA mandated safety equipment has been replaced with inexpensive, ineffective substitutes. For instance, workers allege that they receive paper dust masks to protect them from the fumes rather than respirators. In addition, while OSHA requires that employees who come in contact with the hexavlaent chromium be provided with proper cleaning facilities to rid their bodies and clothes of the chemical, management at Flex-N-Gate has failed to deliver this – in effect, exposing not only the employee’s families to the carcinogen, but also the entire Urbana-Champaign community.
The gravity of the situation does not end with the working conditions. In order to demand their rights as workers and human beings, the employees have made numerous attempts at unionizing with the assistance of the UAW. But their efforts have been largely thwarted through management’s invidious tactics. To foster resentment, management has intentionally divided jobs within the plant to favor employees of certain ethnicities. The workforce is comprised of ⅓ Congolese, ⅓ Latino, and ⅓ native residents of the United States. According to the UAW, the Congolese workers are assigned the most heinous and dangerous tasks. It comes as no surprise then that the Congolese are the ethnic group most in favor of the union, followed by the Latinos and the US natives. Draconian retaliation has been management’s response to the audacious whistle blowers and union advocates. According to these workers, they were denied overtime, protective equipment, and contract guaranteed medical care for vocalizing their desire to unionize.
Mr. Khan’s affiliation with the University is no secret. He is among the most distinguished alum and generous donors. But the unfortunate irony is that Mr. Khan has donated $10 million dollars for the new Health Sciences addition to Huff Hall, while failing to provide the bare necessities for the health of his workers. But I am not here to denigrate the moral character or Mr. Khan. What I am here to do is to request an action from the Board. The board must issue a public statement vehemently urging Mr. Khan to ensure safe working conditions and to respect the rights of his self-determined workers. If he doesn’t do so, the University should refuse to accept his donations, deny him any awards, and remove his name from the facilities which he has already donated.
The University of Illinois’ mission is to “transform lives and serve society by educating, creating knowledge and putting knowledge to work on a large scale and with excellence”. But the acceptance of Mr. Khan’s donations directly contradicts what the Universities espouses — we cannot accept the hypocrisy of housing the Masters in Public Health program in a building built on the backs of workers poisoned in our own community.
If the University is to uphold its ethical standard, the decision to act and act immediately should require no contemplation.