International Capitalism Writ Large in Our Community

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By Jimmi Jay
Flex-N-Gate is a multi-national corporation that manufactures auto parts ranging from bumpers and hinges to pedal systems and instrument panels for major automakers including BMW, Ford, Nissan, and Toyota. In 2011, Flex-N-Gate reported $2.5 billion in annual revenue. A local and international success?The owner of the multi-national, Mr. Shahid Khan,  is a long time, well-respected resident of Urbana-Champaign community. Unlike his current practices and policies, Mr. Kahn’s life story is deserving of admiration. He has lived what some would refer to as the “American Dream.” At the tender age of 16, Khan immigrated from Pakistan to the United States. Looking for “fame and fortune, hearing that the streets were paved with gold”, what he found was an unfortunate reality. He began his career washing dishes for $1.20 an hour. Khan enrolled in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and obtained a degree in engineering. After graduation, with a small loan, he bought the Flex-N-Gate company and has overseen its operations and led it to its current prominence. Khan’s current net worth is estimated at $2.5 billion.These things sound like success right? Take a closer look.

Working conditions at Flex-N-Gate factories inspire outrage rather than homage–think modern day sweatshops. Members of our community who make their livings at Flex-N-Gate have filed complaints with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency that is intended to protect against harmful working conditions. Flex-N-Gate workers have identified more than 30 violations of OSHA standards. A majority of these violations regard exposure to the carcinogenic chemical agent hexavalent chromium which is used on the factory’s bumper-plating lines. Hexavalent chromium is used to produce the glossy, plated look, but the chemical is also responsible for serious adverse health effects if proper precautions are not taken. According to OSHA, workplace exposure to hexavalent chromium is proven to cause lung cancer and irritation or damage to the nose, throat, eyes, and skin. As an aside, Erin Brokovich–in the movie as in reality, fought to enforce the rights of workers who had been exposed this same chemical used at Flex-N-Gate.

Management (led by the esteemed Khan) at Flex-N-Gate has not provided employees the basic safety equipment to mitigate the adverse health effects from exposure to hexavalent chromium. The instruction provided on safe handling of this chemical is close to non-existent and far from adequate. To reduce overhead, OSHA mandated safety equipment has been replaced with inexpensive, ineffective substitutes. 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 provide this – in effect, exposing the community and employee’s families to the carcinogenic chemical. The plant in Urbana is not even temperature regulated, workers endure excessive cold in winter and heat in summer. Many workers have reported fainting in the summer months.

The repugnancy of the situation does not end with the working conditions. In order to demand their rights as workers and human beings, workers have made numerous attempts at unionizing with the assistance of the UAW. Their efforts have been largely thwarted by management’s Draconian opposition. In a strategic move to prevent unionization, they have a regular practice of hiring a workforce that is divided along language lines. One third of the workforce are French-speaking Congolese workers, 1/3 are  Spanish-speaking Latin-Americans, and the final 1/3 are English-speaking Caucasians and African-Americans from the United States. Apart from their inability to communicate with each other, all safety signs within the factory are in English only, no  translations are provided. Furthermore, outspoken employees have been threatened with firing and have been given eviction notices (these evictions have been prevented due to significant protest efforts).

Meanwhile, Khan spreads his wealth around to those outside his factory walls. He recently bought the Jacksonville Jaguars for $760 million. Khan is also among the top five donors to the University of Illinois, including a $10 million dollar gift to pay for an annex to the Applied Health Sciences building. The fact that Khan can donate money for a health building, but cannot provide basic health conditions for his workers is unbelievable. A clearer definition of hypocrisy couldn’t exist in the dictionary. Mr. Kahn is the quintessential capitalist without scruple. He is emblematic of excessive wealth accumulation and a moral duplicity. Kahn must suffer from amnesia. His contempt for the plight of his workers is clear evidence that he has all but forgotten his humble beginnings. The University, as well as the great Champaign-Urbana community, venerates Kahn for his philanthropic efforts, but fails to regard the manner in which this entrepreneur acquired his fortune. Such invidious treatment by the management at Flex-N-Gate must elicit antipathy and an outcry from the community.

For more information on Flex-N-Gate please visit the website

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