Today President Obama said that he needed to take action to reform immigration because under the status quo, employers are gaming the system and driving down wages.
That’s exactly why administrative immigration reform has to protect workers. Every day, immigrant workers who speak out against illegal wages, health and safety violations, and workplace discrimination face illegal retaliation from employers: firing and deportation. This not only traps immigrant workers in exploitation, it drives down wages and conditions for tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can break this cycle by following the civil and labor rights recommendations that the New Orleans Workers’ Center presented to it in May. That means ensuring that DHS actions do not discourage workers from taking action to protect and enforce their own rights and the rights of their coworkers, and that immigration enforcement doesn’t undermine workers’ wages and conditions. It also means DHS must ensure protections for civil rights leaders who come forward to expose the on-the-ground realities of workplace abuse.
President Obama should also stop appeasing the far right by caving in to xenophobia and demagoguery. That strategy has failed, and his announcement today shows that he knows it — but his move to expedite the deportations of unaccompanied children threatens to continue the failure.
Instead, the President should focus on protecting the civil and labor rights of immigrant workers and families, for the sake of every worker in America.
This week, The Guardian reported that Walmart and other major retailers are selling seafood produced by Burmese migrant workers trafficked onto slave ships in Thailand.
The below statement is by Olivia Guzman, a guestworker in the U.S. seafood industry and member of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), on June 13, 2014:
Watching the report on conditions for workers on these slave ships, I’m angry and appalled. It is clear that slavery is still alive in 2014.
As a longtime migrant worker who came from Mexico to the U.S. on H-2B visas, I know what it means to leave your home to find a way to support your family. Compared to the workers from Burma and Thailand who ended up being sold onto slave ships, my fellow guestworkers and I are privileged. At the same time, we see ourselves in them. We also arrive to a system where bosses hold us in abusive conditions by using threats. For the workers in Thailand the threats are violence and death. For us in the United States the threats are deportation and blacklisting.
I joined the NGA in 2009 because I had seen too much abuse, and I wanted to change it. I worked in seafood processing on the supply chains of Walmart and other retailers for nearly 17 years. My fellow workers and I have often been paid below the minimum wage. We live in crowded labor camps on company property under constant surveillance. We fear firing, deportation, and blacklisting all the time. In one plant supervisors even hit us to make us work faster. When workers spoke up, employers would silence them with the threat of blacklisting: locking workers out of jobs permanently by removing them from the employment list and reporting them to immigration so they would no longer be able to work in the U.S.
As a member of the NGA I met many other workers like me and began to organize. I spoke up in meetings, visited worksites, and brought grievances about the labor camp to my boss. For that I was blacklisted this season. I knew about this risk, but I knew that if I didn’t speak up, the abuse would keep getting worse. I’ve been encouraging my co-workers here to stand up and organize, and I want to tell the migrant workers enslaved in Thailand to do the same.
Walmart and other major brands should be ashamed of profiting from this abuse, and they should work to stop it. They should take responsibility for conditions we migrant workers face on their supply chains in the U.S. and in Thailand. Walmart is a very powerful company, and if they want to stop this abuse, they can do it.
Stopping buying from a known abuser isn’t enough. Brands need to make sure their suppliers enact protections to block forced labor and threats of retaliation, which keep workers from coming forward to report abuse and exploitation.
That’s why we have launched the NGA Forced Labor Prevention Accord. We urge major retailers like Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, and others to sign the accord as a step toward avoiding this extreme abuse.
Workers around the world have shown bravery to stand up against abuse and forced labor. Big retailers need to do the same.
Labor Rights Groups Want Big Retailers To Help Improve Guest Worker Conditions In Their Supply Chains
By Angelo Young
June 12, 2014
Olivia Fernanda Guzman Garfias has spent the past 17 years traveling back and forth between Mexico and the United States to work among the many seafood processing facilities scattered across the swampy delta of southern Louisiana.
Guzman, a 51-year-old married mother of three, says she’s witnessed deplorable working conditions throughout her years of picking meat from crayfish, crab and shrimp shells. Meanwhile, labor rights advocates — taking their cues from efforts to get companies to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s perilous textile industry — are urging major seafood buyers to put pressure on suppliers to improve their treatment of workers.
“For years I’ve seen bad working conditions, low pay, decrepit labor camps and the abusive treatment at many places I’ve worked,” Guzman told International Business Times by phone on Thursday. It wasn’t until her three children were old enough help support the family back in Mexico’s northwestern Sinaloa state that she decided it was time to do something. “I began organizing my co-workers to try to improve conditions, but the employer found out about it and he didn’t like that we were becoming united.”
Guzman is one of the 66,000 annual recipients of renewable H-2B visas that let foreign nationals work for temporary periods every year. They’re forestry workers in Idaho. They operate amusement park concession stands in the summer. Or, like Guzman, they process shellfish in the Gulf Coast. Most of them are from Mexico. All of them are working legally in the United States, with fewer rights than the citizens that often work right next to them.
“People are terrified to even just ask for simple things, like asking to fix a flooded bathroom. They’re afraid to speak to the employer,” said Jacob Horwitz, lead organizer for the workers center, who is spearheading a campaign to get major seafood buyers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) to do more to combat retaliatory tactics, wage theft and workplace safety violations among its suppliers.
As it is, H-2B guest workers can be held off the clock by their employers when there isn’t enough work. In some cases guest workers have received absurdly low paychecks. Guzman told IBTimes her pay has averaged in recent years about $275 a week, but during slow times the weekly pay would drop to $60. At the end of a five-month harvest, Guzman nets several hundred dollars; $1,000 in a good year. Her husband Fausto is also a guest worker at a separate company in Louisiana. Their combined guest worker income has helped the Guzmans get by back home in Mexico for the rest of the year as they planned their return to the U.S. for the next crayfish harvest. Fausto supplements their meager U.S.-earned savings back home in Mexico by taking up commerical fishing or day labor work during Louisiana’s off-season.
With political gridlock on the issue, labor rights advocates are looking to major retailers to use their purchasing clout to compel seafood suppliers to weed out labor, wage and safety abuses, including the threat of retialiation to workers like Guzman who try to recruit co-workers to demand better conditions.
Guzman asserts that Bayou Land Seafood violated wage standards by paying for meat-picking by the pound and ignoring rules that require it to pay a minimum hourly wage and overtime regardless of the amount of meat they extract. She also says she lived in communal housing with 11 other guest workers that was vermin-infested and lacking air conditioning — southern Louisiana is sweltering for much of the year.
Bayou Land Seafood did not return IBTimes’ request for comment, but a representative hired by the company to handle communications told local news provider nola.com (the New Orleans Times-Picayune) that the housing is “clean, safe and comfortable” and that “every employer has an obligation … to pick and choose the individuals who they think are best, not only for the job but for working collaboratively.”
Guzman’s complaints aren’t unique.
Last year, Harvest Time Seafood of Abbeville, Louisiana, was forced by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to pay $53,000 to four Mexican nationals, all of them women, for illegally garnishing their paychecks for the costs of recruiting them — and then threatening to fire them and report them to immigration authorities. The company paid the fine but says it was unaware of any wrongdoing in paying guest workers a piece-rate for each pound of meat they picked. Companies break the law if they do not ensure they’re paying a legal minimum hourly rate, including overtime, regardless of how many pounds of meat the workers extract every hour. Employers can also fall into legal problems for garnishing wages to recover expenses like visa-processing fees or the protective gear, such as goggles and aprons, required of guest workers to meet safety and hygiene standards.
Under the current U.S. immigration and labor law, employers can initiate deportation proceedings any time they decide to fire or lay off guest workers. This constant threat of deportation can be used to compel guest workers to tolerate harsh working conditions or violations of wage and safety standards.
As reported here in June 2012, guest workers from Mexico filed a federal complaint against Breaux Bridge-based CJ’s Seafood, a Wal-Mart supplier, for not paying overtime, locking workers inside workplace facilities, making physical threats for not working fast enough, and forcing some to work up to 24-hour shifts during peak operations.
In July 2012, the Labor Department slapped CJ’s with a $34,000 fine for safety violations, including blocking exits at the facility, and required it to pay $214,000 for wage and hour violations. Dozens of guest workers got nearly $77,000 in back pay.
Local labor rights advocates have taken a cue from recently implemented measures to compel large companies to proactively improve textile factory conditions in Bangladesh.
The National Guestworker Alliance, once of the most vocal non-profit organizations in the country advocating for the rights of H-2B visa holders, has called on three major buyers of U.S. farmed and processed seafood – Wal-Mart, Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) and Whole Foods Market Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) – to do more to purge sketchy suppliers from their supply chains.
The NGA wants these three major seafood buyers to to agree to “a binding dispute resolution process that includes employers and workers,” according to Horwitz. This would bring the three major seafood buyers into labor disputes involving their suppliers and guest workers they employ who step forward with wage, labor or safety complaints. The group is currently trying to get the three retailers to respond to requests to discuss the terms of its proposed accord. Representatives at Wal-Mart, Target and Whole Foods did not return IBTimes’ requests for comment.
Guestworkers Expose Blacklisting in LA Seafood Industry
Workers confront employer, file federal complaint after blacklisting
NEW ORLEANS, LA—On Thursday, June 5, 2014, guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) launched a fight to end blacklisting by employers in the seafood industry—a weapon of coercion that silences workers and contributes to forced labor.
Workers and community allies from the Congress of Day Laborers and STAND with Dignity filed a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint against Bayou Land Seafood, which blacklisted guestworker Olivia Guzman after she joined the NGA and spoke out against sub-minimum wage pay, decrepit housing, and organized her coworkers to try to improve working conditions at Bayou Land and across the industry.
“My sister and brother-in-law won’t even talk to me now because they don’t want to be cut off,” Olivia said. “That’s why we have to fight this. If we don’t, the bosses and their recruiters will see that they can just blacklist anyone who demands their rights, and more and more abuse will happen.”
Employers and recruiters use blacklisting—refusing to rehire guestworkers and/or reporting them to immigration authorities—as a weapon of coercion against guestworkers, who depend entirely on the ability to return to the U.S. each year for regular seasonal work.
Olivia defied the threats and helped form the Seafood Worker Organizing Committee, alongside former guestworkers from Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood, which subjected guestworkers to forced labor. Olivia has also served as a guestworker on the Walmart supply chain.
“When I decided to become a leader in the NGA, I knew what I was exposing myself to, but I had seen too much abuse to stay silent,” Olivia said. “I had to fight for my rights and the rights of all workers.”
On June 4, Olivia and allies confronted her former employer at the Bayou Land Seafood plant in Cecilia, LA, but he refused to rehire her or pledge to protect future workers from blacklisting.
After filing the NLRB complaint on June 5, Olivia and her allies delivered formal requests to Walmart, Whole Foods, and Target, asking that they refuse to purchase seafood from Bayou Land Seafood until the company agrees to rehire Olivia and sign the NGA’s Forced Labor Prevention Accord, which would protect workers from blacklisting and other forms of employer coercion.
“Major retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods can end forced labor on their U.S. supply chains any time they want,” said NGA Lead Organizer Jacob Horwitz. “They set the standards for their suppliers, and they need to demand an end to blacklisting as a weapon of fear.”
In coming weeks, NGA and its members will engage with workers, allies, and consumers to encourage retailers and other seafood buyers to sign the Forced Labor Prevention Accord.
Saket Soni doesn’t usually count meetings, but the other day he couldn’t help it: 17. “It’s not that healthy to have 17 meetings per day,” he concedes; 10 to 12 is the limit.
Some begin with a dial-in, some with the tchwap of butcher paper tearing — a fresh sheet for a group strategy session. Others are free-form, like when Soni counseled a woman struggling to organize construction workers. They walked together, did breathing exercises. The ocean sounds in Soni’s iTunes library provided backdrop for guided meditation.
“When you’re an organizer, nothing is too small,” he says.
Conference calls can be memorable, too. The labor organizer has conducted them in church stairwells, outside labor camps, inside ICE detention centers. On Easter weekend six years back, Soni joined a conference call while marching with dozens of Indian welders from Montgomery, Alabama, to Atlanta, Georgia. Like many of the people who find their way to Soni, the welders had been screwed. Recruiters had convinced them to pay $20,000 for a green card and the chance to help rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans. Forced labor and squalid trailers awaited them.
He has led guest workers to some of the ballsiest collective actions in recent history…
The organization Soni directs, the National Guestworker Alliance, focuses on immigrants with temporary work visas. Hundreds of thousands come to the United States each year. Despite their numbers, they’re difficult to organize: transient, for starters; vulnerable and risk averse, besides. Guest workers don’t come here to make trouble. Because their visas bind them to one employer, quitting means deportation, or worse.
SOURCE: MICHAEL STRAVATO/NYTIMES/REDUX
Jose Luis, an employee for Don Benoit, collects crawfish from traps at a rice field in Gueydan, La., on Nov. 24, 2012.
Soni has led guest workers to some of the ballsiest collective actions in recent history — the welders, for instance, ended up marching all the way to Washington, D.C., going on a hunger strike and catalyzing an uproar in India and the White House. A strike by Mexican crawfish-peelers — who’d been forced to work 16- to 24-hour shifts and threatened with bodily harm — changed corporate policy at Wal-Mart. Striking student guest workers at a Hershey packing plant led the State Department to rewrite certain visa policies.
More remarkable than all this, maybe, is whom Soni thinks the guest workers represent: you.
What’s happening is the rise of contingent labor — temporary, part-time, gig-to-gig…
“The guest workers and low-wage workers that I organize hold a crystal ball into the changing nature of work,” he argues. It’s part of a theory about the future of work that he’s elucidated in lectures at Harvard Law School, Soros-funded forums, on television and, soon probably, in a book. “What’s happening to low-wage workers is not just happening to low-wage workers,” he says .
What’s happening is the rise of contingent labor — temporary, part-time, gig-to-gig — and the lengthening of labor supply chains, like independent contractors and sub-subcontractors. In their wake, even American-born professionals have lost leverage. At universities, adjunct professors are paid per class, hired per semester. Lawyers who used to work at firms now contract for them. Sixty-four thousand Silicon Valley engineers just won a settlement against four tech giants who’d agreed not to solicit one another’s employees. To Soni, their plights all resemble guest workers’.
Stories about abused guest workers once elicited sympathy, Soni says. Now they elicit recognition. “There’s a real national panic about work that has not been named in our society,” he says. “It’s a United States of Anxiety.”
Of course, it’s in Soni’s strategic interest to describe a common plight. Many Americans would resist the notion that they share a boat with guest workers; they’re more likely to think about guest workers as threats to their own jobs. That’s if they think about guest workers at all. Guest workers are just slightly less invisible and marginalized than when Soni started his work.
But within the labor movement, the idea that we are all guest workers now has force.
“Saket could well be one of the architects of the next labor movement in the United States,” says George Goehl, no organizing slouch himself. Soni’s “future of work” analysis packs as much disruptive punch as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Goehl says, though for years the packaging wasn’t fancy. (“There was something charming about seeing him show up at meetings and take that butcher paper out of his backpack,” says Goehl.) It’s fancier now, enough to sway hundreds of skeptical organizers around the country, including those who work with Goehl.
Despite the seriousness of his work and his immersion in it — even his partner, Marielena Hincapié, is a prominent immigrant advocate — Soni seems boyish: baby face, sweep of dark hair, open demeanor, short stature. Without his goatee and glasses, he’d look younger than his 36 years.
I would not give in and self-deport … I would stay and be part of a rebuilding of democracy in this country.
He spent his childhood in Delhi, and his parents, though not particularly political, sent him to a school where Soni felt he was “in a swirl of social forces: You were writing a school play and it was about Nelson Mandela; then you were going out to protest [against] the Indian cricket team going to South Africa; and then you were meeting with Nelson Mandela because he was free.
“And we were told it happened only because of us — and because we were kids, we believed it.”
With a sense of protagonism and possibility, Soni went to the University of Chicago on a full scholarship. He studied theater and, after college, worked at a theater company whose scripts were based on the immigrant experience. Rent came from sweeping floors and washing dishes and cars. He overstayed his student visa just in time for the post-9/11 crackdown on foreigners.
That period was a crucible, he says, “being undocumented and entering into a period of low-wage work, and in the meantime trying to continue to work in the arts, and eventually defending more and more people from deportation.”
On the other end of it, Soni emerged an organizer. “Just because the political climate was really bad, I would not give in and self-deport,” Soni says he told himself. “I would stay and be part of a rebuilding of democracy in this country.” That immigrant idealism about America stayed with Soni through the horrors he said he saw in the years after Hurricane Katrina and during his work at the National Guestworkers Alliance.
He retains a sense of the dramatic, too. For Soni, strikes, demonstrations and marches are all forms of public theater — except the stakes are real and high. On the eve of a Mexican strawberry picker walkout in Louisiana, Soni met with the workers and a few others in their trailers, rehearsing and gathering courage. The boss had abused them and confiscated their passports. Everyone was frightened. The workers wrote one word, “Dignidad,” on placards.
The next day, at the appointed hour, the workers rose from the strawberry fields, pulled the placards from under their shirts, and began to march toward the boss. They’d eventually get their passports back, but what stays with Soni is the beauty of it: “To see these workers walking toward us, holding these signs — what a gorgeous image,” he says. Original post: Read more: Saket Soni + the Future of Work | Provocateurs | OZY