‘Far from home but not alone’ – Patriot News Op-ed – 8/23/11

Foreign students: ‘Far from home but not alone’

Published: Tuesday, August 23, 2011, 5:30 AM


By Joe Hopkins

The student guest workers at a Hershey’s packing warehouse have rocked the community by pulling back the curtain of deception and joining with other Pennsylvania workers.

As different contractors and bureaucrats try to escape accountability, the guest workers’ story comes out loud and clear.

They might be far from home, but they’re far from alone.

The National Guestworker Alliance, the group that helped the young people in the warehouse organize, is just one of many organizations that are fighting back against exploitation and abuse of low-wage, immigrant workers. 

Excluded from national labor protections, these workers have formed organizations called workers’ centers, which are safe spaces where workers can learn about their rights as workers, mobilize with their friends and neighbors, and then take action.

Workers’ centers know that they aren’t alone as well.

These grassroots organizations have banded together into national networks such as the one that I work for, the Interfaith Worker Justice Workers’ Center Network, and workers’ centers are helping workers like the Hershey warehouse workers fight abuses such as wage theft, physically dangerous workplaces and discrimination.

Unfortunately, guest-worker exploitation is far too common and widespread.

Given the utter lack of supervision of special visa programs that bring workers to the United States, unethical employers routinely ensnare guest workers in webs of human trafficking where the rule of law is trampled and the workers bear the injuries.

For example, the Workers Center of Central New York discovered a group of Mexican guest workers in the hospital who were suffering from dehydration and malnutrition. They were forced to work 12-hour days with few breaks at state fairs throughout upstate New York. At night, they slept in cockroach-infested trailers.

The guest workers’ employer had recruited them through the H-2B visa program and then threatened them with deportation if they complained of mistreatment.

The story of deception of the Hershey warehouse guest workers is not unusual either. Whereas the young people in Hershey hoped to see the America of their dreams, most guest workers just hope to get a paycheck to help their families survive. They often do not even get that. I am continually amazed at what workers endure — extreme heat or cold, injuries from slips and falls, exposure to toxic chemicals — without objection just to feed their children.

Workers usually only organize at first because their employers are stealing these desperately needed wages. In a 2009 study of wage theft in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, researchers found that low-wage workers lose more than a collective $56.4 million per week to employment and labor law violations.

These jobs often only pay minimum wage to begin with. The web of contractors and subcontractors that exploited the Hershey warehouse guest workers also is common.

In Minneapolis, workers who cleaned grocery stores such as Target and Cub Foods regularly had wages stolen, but when the workers’ center, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha, demanded the back wages, the stores simply blamed the temp agency.

However, that doesn’t stop workers’ centers from organizing. Drawing from the passion and creativity of their worker-members, workers’ centers help low-wage workers improve conditions through a variety of methods.

Legal recourse is one tool, but the preferred method is direct action — directly confronting the employer in delegations or public protests. In the example of CTUL, the workers staged a hunger strike with local clergy to pressure the grocery store chain SuperValu to pay workers their deserved wages and stop unjustly firing workers.
The IWJ Workers’ Center Network has affiliates from Miami to Minnesota, from Los Angeles to Maine, and we are fighting for laws to prevent wage theft, creating co-ops to build economic power, and training workers in health and safety. We also partner with other workers’ center networks — the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network , the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Restaurant Opportunities Center United — to struggle for and win real victories for low-wage and immigrant workers. Workers’ centers are emerging as the new face of labor.

You can see that face in the protesting guest workers in Hershey. The support these young people have received from central Pennsylvania unions reflects the growing relationships between workers’ centers and the traditional labor movement.

That kind of support is what I remember from growing up in the Susquehanna Valley.

Even when I moved away to Chicago to be a missionary, I knew what central Pennsylvania was really about. You might be far from home, but you’re far from alone.

Joe Hopkins is serving as a Methodist missionary in Chicago working as an organizer with the nonprofit group Interfaith Worker Justice Workers’ Center Network. He graduated from Susquenita High School in 2006 and received his B.A. in psychology and Spanish from Bucknell University in 2010.


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