Category: Features

March 12, 2014

The world watches the US on labor abuse – op-ed

The Hill

By Jennifer J. Rosenbaum

On March 13, the United Nations Human Rights Committee will meet for a two-day review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—and our nation’s representatives will have some explaining to do.

In the run-up to the review, labor and civil rights organizations in ten countries that send migrant workers to the U.S. have joined 29 U.S.-based groups in writing to the UN committee to sound the alarm about violations of fundamental human rights of migrants when they are in the U.S. These groups are asking the UN committee to press the United States over the grim reality migrant workers here have faced for decades: employers who subject migrant workers to severe labor abuse, then use immigration enforcement as a weapon to intimidate, lock away, or deport victims and witnesses to hide the abuse.

Iconic U.S. corporations are profiting from such abuse. Case in point: in late February, the Department of Labor awarded $205,977 in back wages and liquidated damages to former student guestworkers at McDonald’s restaurants in Pennsylvania, and to the U.S. workers alongside them.

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In March 2014, the United Nations will review the U.S. record under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Please join the NGA in urging the United Nations Human Rights Commission to demand that the U.S. stop “deporting the evidence” and offer reliable and enforceable protections to migrant workers who expose labor and human rights violations.

Deporting the Evidence: Aug 2013 Report (PDF)

This report exposes the ways in which the United States is “deporting the evidence,” by arresting, detaining, and removing individuals engaged in defending themselves and their communities against serious violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In some cases, the state uses immigration enforcement to retaliate against persons who expose governmental abuses of civil and political rights. In other cases, the state cooperates with private actors who use immigration enforcement to hide their own unlawful behavior. Not only do these actions by the United States directly violate the ICCPR, they also prevent human rights abuses from being exposed or verified because victims and witnesses are intimidated, locked away, or removed from the country.

International Sign-on Letter to UN Human Rights Committee (PDF)

U.S. Sign-on Letter to UN Human Rights Committee (PDF)

After the publication of Deporting the Evidence, 29 U.S. civil, labor, and human rights organizations and leading academics wrote to the UN Human Rights Committee, urging it to direct the United States to adopt new measures to bring its immigration enforcement policies into compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Tell the UN Human Rights Committee: Don’t let the U.S. “deport the evidence” of labor and human rights abuse!

On February 18, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor vindicated the J-1 student guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) who went on strike from McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania in March 2013. The USDOL cited the McDonald’s franchisee for minimum wage violations against 291 fast food workers, awarding them $205,977 in back wages and liquidated damages.

Below is a statement by NGA Executive Director Saket Soni:

Credit: Christine Baker | pennlive.com

Today, some of the most vulnerable workers in America—immigrant guestworkers—won a major victory not only for themselves, but for the U.S. workers alongside them. Brave student guestworkers from Argentina, Malaysia, and other countries defied threats of retaliation and went on strike to end the severe exploitation they faced at McDonald’s stores last year, including sub-minimum wage pay, unpaid overtime, and overpriced company housing. These NGA members won $205,977 in back wages and damages not only for the 178 guestworkers who worked at these McDonald’s stores, but for 113 U.S. fast food workers alongside them, including formerly incarcerated people and political refugees.

This victory comes as tens of thousands of McDonald’s workers around the U.S. are demanding a living wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. McDonald’s must meet those demands.

But this victory also shows that raising wages is not enough. As long as employers like McDonald’s can use threats of retaliation and deportation to exploit immigrant workers, the wages and conditions of the U.S. workers alongside them will never be secure. But by protecting the right to organize for the most vulnerable workers, we help raise the floor for every worker in the U.S.

President Obama stressed in his State of the Union that he’s ready to take executive action to combat income inequality. That action needs to include protections for immigrant workers who come forward to expose abuse from retaliatory deportation.

And now that the DOL has vindicated these workers, McDonald’s corporate can’t hide behind its franchisee and wash its hands of the abuse. McDonald’s must:

  1. Conduct an audit of its franchisees and reveal where else guestworkers are working so that NGA can ensure they are free from abuse;
  2. Publicly commit that when any McDonald’s franchisee commits wage theft or other labor law violations, McDonald’s corporate will take responsibility by making the workers whole and punishing the franchisee; and
  3. Meet the nationwide demand for a $15 an hour wage and the right to form a union without retaliation.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

The Nation

Soon we’ll all be stuck with the unjust working conditions that immigrants face: contingent jobs, with lousy pay and few or no benefits.

By Saket Soni

When members of Congress come back from recess, they could put our nation’s 11.7 million undocumented immigrant workers on a path to citizenship. But if they refuse to, as they did in 2013, they’ll be pushing US workers further down the path to becoming like low-wage immigrant workers. After all, our economy is already headed in exactly that direction.

Move over, farmers, factory workers and technology “creatives”—the emblematic American workers are now low-wage immigrant day laborers and guest workers. More and more, Americans are trapped in the uncertainty and injustice that immigrant workers know all too well, whether they’re here on temporary work visas cleaning luxury condos or undocumented and scrambling for daily construction jobs. Increasingly, from an economic standpoint, office parks and store aisles in America are coming to resemble the street corners where day laborers gather and the labor camps where guest workers are trapped. We can either continue to pretend that low-wage immigrant workers are on the fringes of our economy—that their problems are theirs alone—or we can face the fact that their conditions are what we’re all moving toward, and what millions of US-born workers already face.

Immigrant workers have long experienced vulnerability and instability, and have long been treated as disposable by their employers. Today, roughly one-third of American jobs are part-time, contract or otherwise “contingent.” And the number of contingent workers in the United States is expected to grow by more than one-third over the next four years. That means more and more families are without the benefits of full-time work, such as health insurance, pensions or 401(k)s. And more of us are without the employment certainty that leads to economic stability at home—and to the consumer spending that drives the economy.

In addition, while we are working longer and harder, wages are stagnant. Between 2000 and 2011, the US economy grew by more than 18 percent, while the median income for working families declined by 12.4 percent. Once upon a time, workers shared the economic prosperity of their employers: until 1975, wages accounted for more than 50 percent of America’s GDP. But by 2013, wages had fallen to a record low of just 43.5 percent of GDP. Overall compensation, which factors in healthcare and other benefits, has also hit bottom. Immigrants know where this downward spiral leads—just ask the Jamaican guest workers who cleaned luxury beach condos in Florida last summer and came away with paychecks for zero dollars and zero cents.

And like countless immigrant workers, more and more American workers are trapped in supply and subcontracting chains for big and powerful employers. From the late 1970s until the 2008 recession, small businesses were the prime generator of jobs in America, creating roughly 60 percent of all employment. That percentage has been swiftly declining ever since. The percentage of business loans going to small start-ups has also declined. And yet small businesses generally pay higher wages than large corporations, and a significantly higher percentage of every dollar spent at a small business stays in the community and further boosts the local economy, as opposed to dollars fleeing to often distant corporate headquarters. But when large employers dominate an industry or town, they have unchecked power to drive down wages and working conditions—or, in some cases, to try to avoid paying any wages at all. In 2012, Walmart agreed to pay $4.83 million in overdue back wages to more than 4,500 workers. And conditions don’t get much worse than those of guest workers in the Walmart supply chain who exposed captive labor at a company called CJ’s Seafood that same year, where a supervisor threatened to beat workers with a shovel to make them work faster.

The United States, which presents itself as a global beacon of opportunity and prosperity, is quickly becoming a low-wage nation. America’s immigrant workers are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine—and the coal mine extends from construction sites to supermarkets to Silicon Valley.

We as a nation will be ill equipped to address this profound shift as long as we cling to the divisive vision of an “us and them” economy. Some Americans resist immigration reform because they sense the transformation in the nature of work in our country and make immigrants the target of their justified anxiety. In fact, all US workers—immigrants and US-born, low-wage and higher-wage, temporary and full-time—are increasingly in the same boat. The sooner we realize that we all face the predicament of immigrant workers, the sooner we can work together to solve structural inequality in our economy instead of fighting over the crumbs.

 

Subcontractor Servitude – New York Times op-ed

By Jennifer Gordon

Sep. 2, 2013

THE words “guest workers” and “strike” are not often seen together. Yet twice this summer, members of a group of more than 150 Jamaican guest workers who clean luxury Florida hotels and condos walked off the job. The workers came to the United States in April anticipating a summer of hard work and decent earnings to send home. Instead, they encountered the black hole of labor subcontracting.

Labor-recruitment firms brought the workers from Jamaica to the Florida Panhandle. Cleaning contractors hired them and then leased them out to scrub toilets and sweep sand from floors for vacation property companies.

By the time the workers first went on strike, in June, they had much to protest. They had borrowed to pay recruitment fees of $2,000 to $2,500, counting on promises of full-time work and good housing. But in Florida, the cleaning company packed as many as 15 people into unfurnished two-bedroom apartments, for which it collected as much as $5,000 a month. Charges for rent and required extras like $70 for a T-shirt “uniform” reduced the workers’ net pay to subminimum levels, sometimes even zero, and — the final insult — paychecks repeatedly bounced. Children back home waited for money that never came.

Those problems typify the debt, fraud and coercion that plague guest-work programs in the United States. An estimated 700,000 to a million guest workers and their families enter the country each year, mostly to work in low-wage industries but also as nurses, teachers, computer programmers and the like. When guest workers are exploited, it lowers the floor for American workers, too.

H-2B visas, the class of visas held by the Jamaicans, are reserved for temporary or seasonal work for which there are not enough “able, willing, qualified and available” Americans — but of course, availability depends on the wages and working conditions on offer. Florida’s unemployment rate has been stuck at over 7 percent, so it seems unlikely that no local cleaners could be found.

Guest workers, however, offer something hiring a local worker does not: subservience. They are tied by law to the employer who sponsored their visas, which means that if they are found too “difficult” for any reason — including asking that their rights be respected — the employer can effectively deport them and blacklist them from receiving future work visas.

When the Jamaican cleaners struck the first time, protesting their stolen wages and miserable living conditions, the cleaning company stapled a notice to their paycheck stating that immigration authorities and local law enforcement would escort anyone who didn’t return the next day to the airport, to fly home.

The Jamaicans’ situation is part of a broader phenomenon of subcontracting. The structure of work has shifted since the 1980s, for workers from Manhattan office cleaners to Bangladeshi garment stitchers. The National Employment Law Project reports that 58 percent of jobs added during the recovery have been in low-wage sectors, which have high levels of contingent and subcontracted jobs. Today, almost all production in global manufacturing involves subcontracting. It is central to the structure of employment in the American construction, warehousing and agricultural industries as well.

Subcontractors compete on the price of labor. Where production can’t travel, they move workers across borders, with recruiters’ help. They also shield businesses from legal liability for the treatment of workers and from labor-organizing efforts. Three steps are essential to curbing the system’s worst abuses.

First is immigration reform that protects all workers: When guest workers can defend their rights, the millions who labor alongside them benefit as well. Immigration law must be amended to forbid employers from charging guest workers exorbitant fees directly or through recruiters and to protect those who report abuses from retaliation. The bill passed by the Senate this summer is far from perfect, but it restricts what recruiters can charge and would allow guest workers and other immigrants in a serious labor dispute to change jobs and stay in the country. In contrast, the guest-worker bill House Republicans are threatening to introduce lacks those protective features entirely and would bring in many more workers, on much worse terms.

A second necessary reform is legal responsibility along the contracting chain. If workers in a subcontracting chain are abused, the firms at the top of the chain that benefit from their labor should not be insulated from financial responsibility. An innovative California law penalizes a firm for its subcontractor’s workplace violations if the firm did not pay the subcontractor enough for it to comply with all applicable labor laws. In Britain, the quaintly named Gangmasters Licensing Authority can penalize a firm in the food sector if its labor contractor violates the law. In the Philippines, recruiters are held responsible if they place a worker into a job abroad that violates national laws on overseas employment. Such joint liability should be the standard in subcontracting arrangements.

Third is reform of labor laws. Before their second strike, on Aug. 17, the Jamaicans sought help from the National Guestworker Alliance (a nonprofit advocacy group, but not a union) and filed a complaint with the Labor Department. Other subcontracted workers are members of traditional unions, but the National Labor Relations Act restricts their ability to protest against the employer who actually holds the purse strings in a subcontracting chain, or to bargain collectively with that employer. It is time to repeal this damaging restriction.

This Labor Day, a group of courageous workers in Florida remind us that the right to fair working conditions is one that no company should be able to subcontract its way out of.

Jennifer Gordon is a professor of law at Fordham.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/02/opinion/subcontractor-servitude.html


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