October 12, 2015
We Can Move Mountains
by Shellion Parris
When I was a guestworker in Florida receiving $0 paychecks after working all week and hearing constant threats from my boss, I never dreamed that one day I would join a White House summit on Worker Voice and shake President Obama’s hand. The President held the summit because he believes workers need to be able to raise their voices for all of America to succeed. I came to add my own voice and the voices of one million other guestworkers in the United States. Because if those workers aren’t heard, the kind of workplace abuse that I suffered doesn’t just hurt guestworkers — it hurts many millions of U.S. workers too.
I was recruited to come to the United States in 2013 from a rural area in Jamaica called Trelawny. An American company called Mister Clean wanted workers to come to Florida on H-2B guestworker visas and do housekeeping work. It was hard to imagine leaving my family and my home, but when I became a mother I realized that my life was no longer about me. I decided to take the chance to make a better life for my family.
About 100 other Jamaican workers were brought with me. We had to go into debt of more than $2,000 U.S. dollars each to pay fees and travel costs. When we arrived, Mister Clean made us live in company housing. They put 13 of us in a two-bedroom apartment with no beds, no furniture at all, and made each of us pay $375 per month. Together we were paying nearly $5,000 dollars to sleep on the floor. I knew in my heart that this was unacceptable, but I had come with a goal to work for my children, so I stayed quiet.
When the work began, it only got worse. We were cleaning luxury condominiums on the beach, but we had nothing. The company took our rent directly from our pay. After working for weeks, we would get checks for zero dollars and zero cents. When we complained to our boss at Mister Clean, he threatened to deport us. We couldn’t go work anywhere else because our visas only let us work for one employer, whose name was actually inscribed on our visas. I wanted to get out, but when I thought about the debt I couldn’t pay back home, I felt like I was in a room with no windows or doors — like a prison. I was trapped.
Then some of my co-workers and I decided we couldn’t tolerate the situation any longer. We went on strike and reported Mister Clean to the Department of Labor. The boss kept trying to control us. He threatened to have the sheriff and immigration police show up at our doors, throw us out of the apartments and arrest us, then deport us back to Jamaica. But we continued to organize.
With the help of the National Guestworker Alliance and our allies, I became an organizer. I learned that there are almost one million guestworkers in the U.S., and many of them are trapped the same way we were. U.S. companies target the poor in our home countries, and force us to work in bad conditions for little or no money. They use the fact that the visa binds us to one employer to trap us in exploitation.
I learned that employers use guestworkers to make U.S. workers suffer too, by pushing down wages and conditions for all workers. But I also learned that fighting for others gives you strength to go on.
Last week, my fight for workers’ rights brought me all the way to the White House. But the day before the summit, I found out that a decision by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) may lead to my being deported. USCIS acknowledged that Mister Clean had subjected me and other workers to involuntary servitude, but the agency denied my application for a visa as a victim of workplace abuse, because it said that the involuntary servitude didn’t cause me “substantial harm.”
This shows me we have a lot of work to do to help more people understand how much harm this abuse is causing — to guestworkers, to U.S. workers, and to good employers who follow the rules but can’t compete.
I want to stay in the United States so I can finish the fight that we started in Florida. I want to help guestworkers win the freedom to change employers, freedom from program-related debt, and freedom from threats of deportation when they blow the whistle on abuse. If I can go from zero-dollar paychecks in Florida all the way to the White House, but still be deported the way Mister Clean threatened, it will teach all guestworkers to be afraid of raising their voices. But if we can win our fight, it will help every worker in the U.S. to win.
I know there is a long road ahead, but when I think of all we have achieved so far, I remember a saying we have in Jamaica: “Wi lickle but wi tallawah.” It means we are small, but we can move mountains.