Category: Press Coverage

Immigrants’ Greatest Fear Isn’t What You Think

indianworkers_katrina_apA federal jury recently awarded $14 million in damages to a group of courageous H-2B guestworkers from India who captured national headlines in 2008 when they exposed severe labor exploitation by a Gulf Coast ship and oil-rig builder called Signal International.

In 2015, Signal’s violations sound like something out of another era: human trafficking, forced labor, discrimination and racketeering. Their practices violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and Ku Klux Klan Act.

I first met the workers one Sunday in 2007, weeks after they arrived in the United States. They had stolen away from a labor camp on Signal’s property to attend a clandestine meeting with me in a small church in Mississippi.

They told me how agents of the company had promised them good jobs as welders and pipe-fitters, along with green cards and a better life for themselves and their families. The workers paid up to $20,000 each based on these false promises. Some took on crushing debt; others sold ancestral homes to buy an American Dream.

They arrived in an American nightmare, subject to brutal working conditions, living with twenty-four men in a trailer and facing constant threats of firing and deportation. Instead of green cards, they received temporary H-2B guestworker visas. Now they were asking me: How can we make the company keep its promises? I said: By taking collective action.

A year later, late one night in March 2008, hundreds of workers and I were huddled in a room in Mississippi, just hours before they launched their public campaign to expose Signal’s abuses. As the organizer, it was my job to prepare them.

They had much to fear. They’d soon face covert surveillance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the possibility of arrest and deportation at every step, and even threats of physical violence as they marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to hold a thirty-one-day hunger strike.

But that’s not what they feared most. To my surprise, their greatest fear was telling their families back home that they’d failed. They’d come to America, the land of opportunity, the freest place on earth, and they had nothing to show for it. In their darkest moments, it wasn’t Signal’s abuses that haunted them. It was the fear that they’d let down the ones they loved.

At first this amazed me—then I remembered I’d had exactly the same fear.

I came to the United States from India, to attend college at the University of Chicago. For a time, I thought my foothold in America was secure. Then, in 2000, I missed an immigration deadline and became undocumented. Unable to work legally, I fell behind on rent. I was evicted from my apartment. I lived on friends’ couches, and worked minimum-wage jobs alongside undocumented immigrants from around the world.

After the 9/11 attacks, the threat of deportation increased. More than once, I faced physical violence from strangers who projected onto my brown skin their own nightmares of another terrorist attack. Even so, what I feared most—more than homelessness and physical violence—was telling my family that I had failed. Here I was, in the land of opportunity. And I’d let them down.

The fear of admitting that you’ve failed to achieve the American Dream is hardly unique to immigrant workers. The reality for tens of millions of US workers today is not the climb toward prosperity they were promised, but the sense that they’re losing ground every day. That they’re one slip away from disaster. Workers in the US are working harder every yearwith less to show for it. They struggle each day with their own fear of failure, of letting down the ones they love—and with the sense that somehow it’s their own fault.

It’s not. They haven’t failed at the American Dream; the American dream has failed them. College professors are now poverty-level adjuncts. Educated millennials are now just-in-time retail staff. Seniors who should be retired have become migrant warehouse workers for Amazon. Contract attorneys with six-figure law-school debt are reviewing documents for $8 an hour.

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So how did the Signal workers overcome their greatest fear? By coming together to take collective action.

All around America, there are workers coming together to imagine an economy in which they’re truly free. They’re fighting for the new generation of rights and guarantees that would let tens of millions of US workers trade anxiety and constraint for dignity and creativity.

Those who believe in the promise of the American Dream need to remember that opportunity in America has always been won through generations of collective struggle. If we can imagine freedom in the face of fear, as the Signal workers did, then we can start to build an economy that will guarantee it.

http://www.thenation.com/article/200473/immigrants-greatest-fear-isnt-what-you-think

The Hill op-ed

Feb. 6, 2015

By Saket Soni

dignity vid still 350Even before they took control of Congress, Republican Party leaders were promising they would show America what their party is all about in 2015. So far, they’ve been keeping their promise.

As early as this week, a federal judge in Texas could rule on a lawsuit by 25 governors and attorneys general, overwhelmingly Republican, meant to block implementation of Obama’s executive action on immigration. Here in Louisiana, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal joined the lawsuit, and senior senator and likely future governor David Vitter (R) said stopping Obama’s immigration action was his top priority. And in the House, just hours before the lawsuit’s first hearing in January, Republicans also voted overwhelmingly to block implementation of the president’s immigration action.

Republican leaders know all eyes are on them, and the party’s reputation is at stake. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has sought to shake the image of his party as led by spoilers, nay-sayers, and ideologues, telling the Washington Post, “I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority.”

Why then is a party so concerned with proving it can be “responsible” focused on crushing Obama’s immigration action?

It’s worth recalling exactly what the president’s order would and wouldn’t do. It would provide only a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation for about 5 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. Rather than living in daily terror of being seized in racial profiling-based raids at school bus stops, grocery stores, and Bible studies and torn apart from their families, immigrants with deep ties to their communities and no criminal records would be able to take a modest step toward normalcy in their daily lives.

This falls short of the true aspirations of America’s immigrants—good jobs and a meaningful path toward citizenship in the communities they already call home—but it would be a step in the right direction. And as the amicus brief by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and other national immigration groups in the Texas case argues, Obama’s action would be an economic boon not only for immigrant workers, but for U.S. workers and the economy as a whole.

So what has driven Republicans to the politics of panic? Quite simply, something progressives have forgotten, but Republicans know all too well: you can’t win the nation without winning the South.

Of the 25 states suing to stop Obama’s immigration action, 15 are in the South or the Southwest. At first glance, it may not be clear what Southern Republicans think they have to fear from the immigrants Obama’s action would cover. In absolute terms, Northern states have a significantly higher number of undocumented immigrants than the South does.

But small margins matter. As Ben Jealous pointed out in his recent report True South, as little as a 30 percent increase in voter registration among people of color in Southern states could transform the political calculus in the region.

Take Georgia, where the net average margin of victory over the past three gubernatorial elections has been 260,704 votes, according to the study. A 30 percent rise in registration by voters of color would add 200,100 likely Democratic voters. The Migration Policy Instituteestimates that Obama’s executive action would cover 170,000 undocumented immigrants in Georgia. If those immigrants stepped out of the shadows and went on to win full citizenship and voting rights, they could end up tipping the scales in Democrats’ favor.

The same is true across the South. Again, the temporary reprieve Obama’s action offers is a long way from full citizenship. But it’s a step along the way, and Republicans know it. That’s why they’re going all in on trying to stop it. They’re looking ahead and seeing a very different South—and a very different America—and they’re panicking.

It’s time for progressives to look ahead with hope—and to get to work on a new Southern strategy to match it.

Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/231913-the-politics-of-panic

What if Your Ability to Stay in This Country Depended on Your Employer?

The Nation

By Michelle Chen

June 12, 2014

Every year, US companies invite thousands of special guests from abroad into the labor market, and they arrive clutching visas that will provide them short-term jobs in food processing, farmwork and other seasonal sectors. The guestworker’s visit is often an uneasy one: everything hinges on that temporary work permit—not just a job, but also the very right to be in the country. So they are typically careful to avoid making any trouble with the boss who sponsored them.

But Olivia Guzman is the rare guestworker who has stood up to her boss, the seafood processor Bayou Land Seafood, and so this year, she’s been disinvited. And when the company declined to bring her back to Louisiana for her usual seasonal job, she got even bolder, because she was sure that she was being shut out of the country simply for her labor activism and for organizing her coworkers.

guestworker_campaign_otu

Guzman did eventually make it back to the United States from her town in Sinaloa last week, to knock on her employer’s door—not for her usual annual work assignment, but to serve a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The freshly filed complaint, backed by Congress of Day LaborersSTAND with Dignity and National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) alleges Bayou Land “refused to hire and blacklisted” Guzman due to her “protected concerted activity on behalf of the rights of guestworkers.”

Guzman’s activity is “protected” only on paper, however. According to labor advocates, workers in the gulf seafood processing industry have suffered massive exploitation and intimidation. Bayou Land’s alleged retaliation stems from a successful labor campaign that Guzman helped organize against Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood. In 2012, the campaign, led by NGA and other advocacy groups, exposed patterns of epidemic labor violations, from wage theft to forced labor conditions to health hazards, along an intricate supply chain that links big retailers to the dregs of Louisiana’s seafood industry to Mexican towns that feed migrant labor into the factories. The campaign, which involved striking and public protests as well as petitioning regulators, eventuallyprompted the Labor Department to propose various reforms to the H-2B regulations. Though the regulations have been stalled by litigation and blocked by congressional conservatives, employers have apparently made some limited material improvements in working conditions.

But Guzman says that across the sector, guestworkers still lack the power in the workplace to really negotiate the terms of their employment, and hers is a case in point.

Guzman says that when she recently reapplied for Bayou Land’s sponsorship, they told her that they were refusing to hire her because she had allegedly caused “problems” with her coworkers, and repeatedly ignored her and NGA’s requests for further justification.

A Bayou Land spokesperson claimed to the Times-Picayune that the company paid the workers as much as $13 an hour and provided “clean, safe and comfortable” living quarters. Guzman counters that the modest improvements in the industry have only been won through the agitation led by workers.

That these workers managed to take any political action at all is a considerable feat. The program that brought the Walmart guestworkers to the United States, the H-2B visa, is aimed at bringing a low-wage, and legally disenfranchised supply of temporary labor into notoriously exploitative industries like cannery and hotel work. The seafood guestworkers, whose legal sponsorship depends on their continued employment with a designated employer, were regularly forced to work upwards of 16 hours a day in squalid conditions, sometimes physically locked inside—and terrified of being sent home.

Guzman, who has worked at several Walmart supplier factories, says through an interpreter that workers often felt they had no choice but keep working “to make just a little bit of money, to make it worth it that we came all this way to work.” The instability of their seasonal jobs is used by the bosses “to make us bow our heads, to keep silent…and make us always ready to do anything to keep our jobs.” Under this relentless pressure, she adds, the boss “makes us feel like his slaves, and like we are his property.”

While Guzman’s complaint wends its way through the NLRB system, activists have waged a campaign to shame Bayou’s major clients, Target, Whole Foods and Walmart, with letters demanding that the companies “refuse to purchase seafood from Bayou Land Seafood until the company agrees to rehire Olivia.” Additionally, advocates have drafted a Forced Labor Prevention Accord, which would commit employers to an explicit ban on blacklisting and establish a dispute resolution process, allowing for binding arbitration if there is an impasse.

The use of retaliation and coercion is rife in all forms of marginalized, low-wage work. But for guestworkers, employers act as global gatekeepers. According to a 2012 NGA report on labor conditions in the Walmart’s supply chain, major labor violations were found in twelve of eighteen suppliers surveyed. But the scope of the problem is unclear because workers “generally under-report workplace violations out of fear of retaliation and blacklisting.”

A separate survey of guestworkers from various countries, working in agriculture and food processing, described economic and structural deterrents to challenging employers, including “debts related to recruitment, visa, and transportation costs; visas tied to their employer; and retaliation including threats of deportation.”

The campaign behind the Forced Labor Prevention Agreement, according to NGA lead organizer Jacob Horwitz, reinforces existing law and empowers the workforce by instituting accountability across the supply chain, particularly through the support of major buyers. And by protecting workers from retaliation for initiating a formal complaint, the agreement would allow them to stay employed while pressing their legal claims at the same workplace, “without giving employers the weapon of using the border to silence complaints.”

Whatever happens at Bayou Land, Guzman says, “I’m going to keep going forward and fighting for the rights of all my coworkers, so that we can overcome this kind of coercion and oppression on the job, so that we can come forward and report abuse when it happens to us, with a guarantee that we’ll be able to keep working, without being afraid.”

The fact that Guzman journeyed all the way from Sinaloa to Lousiana to seek justice should show employers that no intimidation or blacklisting—not even an international border—can stop the most fearless workers from standing up for their rights on American soil.

http://www.thenation.com/blog/180192/what-if-your-ability-stay-country-depended-your-employer

Labor Rights Groups Want Big Retailers To Help Improve Guest Worker Conditions In Their Supply Chains

By Angelo Young

June 12, 2014

20140604_113638_350Olivia 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.

With the help of legal counsel provided by the New Orleans-based Workers Center for Racial Justice, Guzman filed a federal labor complaint last week against her most recent employer, Bayou Land Seafood, located 15 miles east of Lafayette near the town of Breaux Bridge. She says the company retaliated against her efforts to organize co-workers by refusing to rehire her. Retaliatory measures against workplace organizing are a federal violation of the right for employees to meet to discuss ways to improve their working conditions.

“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.

Congress isn’t likely do enact immigration reform this year, much less pass a measure promoted by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that would extend whistleblower protections to guest workers. The measure, which is part of the stalled Senate immigration bill, would let guest workers express grievances without facing the threat of immediate deportation should their employers retaliate by firing them. At the behest of companies that rely on guest workers, Republicans last year blocked a measure the Department of Labor attempted that would have boosted protections, including adding wage guarantees similar to ones extended to agricultural guest workers.

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.

The accord is similar to initiatives pushed by the International Labor Organization and other international workers’ rights groups that have led to company-funded programs like the U.S.-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and Europe’s Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh aimed at increasing workplace safety through the efforts of companies that profit from Bangladesh’s unsafe textile factories.

“We definitely looked at what they were doing to try to get companies here to do more here to improve conditions for these workers,” Horwitz said.

http://www.ibtimes.com/labor-rights-groups-want-big-retailers-help-improve-guest-worker-conditions-their-supply-1599908

Former crawfish processor speaks out against ‘blacklisting’ in guest worker visa program

New Orleans Times-Picayune
June 5, 2014
By Benjamin Alexander-Bloch

A woman traveled from her Mexican hometown to New Orleans this week to file a National Labor Relations Board complaint accusing her former employer, Bayou Land Seafood, of ending her job in retaliation for her speaking out about low pay and poor labor conditions.

Olivia Fernanda Guzman Garfias, who filed the complaint Thursday after traveling from Sinaloa, Mexico, said she was “blacklisted,” or not invited to come back to work this season, because last year she criticized the company’s pay, housing conditions and threats of retaliatory deportation.

The company, a crawfish processor in Cecilia near Breaux Bridge, denied the allegations through spokesman Greg Beuerman. He said all workers at the company are “guaranteed a wage of $9.03 per hour during the guest worker contract period” and some make as much as $13 an hour “based on their productivity and level of skill and speed in their work.”

Guzman, 51, worked under the H-2B program, which grants low-skilled seasonal workers visas when a petitioner has established that there “are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work,” according to the federal qualifications. In addition to the seafood processing industry, the program often also fills jobs in the forestry, sugar cane, lodging and amusement industries.

Guzman, speaking through an interpreter, said she decided to file the complaint after 17 years working in Louisiana seafood processing companies because she wanted “to defend my fellow workers’ labor rights and our human rights and confront my employer about all the abuses that we have been suffering. The deplorable conditions are too many to list.”

She said now that her three children in Mexico are grown, she feels comfortable filing her complaint.

“Over the years, that has always been my biggest fear. Because if I didn’t have work, how could I support them,” Guzman said.

Guzman filed the complaint with the support from the New Orleans-based National Guestworker Alliance and other local nonprofits, which attended a protest at Lafayette Square in downtown New Orleans Thursday.

Jacob Horwitz, the lead organizer at the National Guestworker Alliance, said Bayou Land Seafood wanted to “keep workers quiet and from organizing or reporting bad conditions and needed improvements.” Guzman was targeted because she was upsetting that order, said Horwitz.

Speaking of Guzman, he said the firm “retaliated against the most outspoken leader in the NGA (National Guestworker Alliance) and prevented her from coming back and thus sending a message to the other workers to not speak out.”

Beuerman, however, denied any assertions that the firm targeted Guzman. He said “every employer has an obligation to employee people, whether domestic resident employees or guest workers, to pick and choose the individuals who they think are best, not only for the job but for working collaboratively with others on site as a team.”

Beuerman said Bayou Land Seafood employs about 45 guest workers, 10 full-time domestic residents and eight part-time resident employees.

Guzman said on Thursday that workers were paid a piece-rate wage, meaning they were paid about $2 per pound of crawfish that they peeled and that often the crawfish were extremely small and dry making it harder to peel too many an hour.

She also said that 8 to 10 foreign workers often lived together in a single trailer, and paid about $80 each a month, that many trailers didn’t have any air-conditioning or ventilation and had bugs and rodents. She added that because foreign workers often are only in town for a few months at a time, it is difficult to find alternative housing besides the processing plant’s trailers.

Beuerman said the company trailers “are clean, safe and comfortable,” and that workers can choose to live elsewhere if they like. He also said that small businesses such as Bayou Land Seafood “feel obligated morally and economically to treat their guest workers well because there is stiff competition to get good workers and workers understand that they have options.”

The National Guestworker Alliance Thursday also wrote letters to retailers Walmart, Whole Foods and Target, requesting that they meet to discuss the alliance’s newly launched “Forced Labor Prevention Accord.”

That accord asks large retailers to require that suppliers who use guest workers agree to give those employees “the security that they would continue to be employed, and brought back the following season, unless the employer can explain a just cause for firing them,” Horwitz said.

Original link: http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2014/06/former_crawfish_processor_spea.html


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