Category: Press Coverage

Mother Jones

June 15, 2016

American Seafood Has Its Own Forced Labor Problem

A new report sheds light on the abused immigrants shucking your shellfish

It’s been an ugly year for the seafood industry. Investigative reports by both the AP and the New York Times exposed widespread reliance on forced and slave labor from international seafood suppliers across Southeast Asia, prompting President Obama to sign the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act in February. The bill banned the import of goods produced with forced labor, a concerted conclusion to months of startling headlines.

But labor abuse in the seafood sector isn’t a problem confined to Asia. A reportpublished Wednesday by the labor group the National Guestworker Alliance suggests that some US seafood workers also experience abusive conditions. The report focuses on the experiences of undocumented and H2-B visa guestworkers shucking, peeling, and boiling shrimp and crawfish at seafood processing plants in New Bedford, Mass. and along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Around 69 percent of shrimp produced in the US comes from the Gulf Coast.

“Stealing wages is standard business practice. The financial incentive to underpay guestworkers is far greater than the risk of getting caught.”

According to the NGA report, the US seafood industry has relied heavily on H2-B guestworkers and undocumented immigrants to drive down labor costs to stay price competitive with international producers. A 2009 survey in New Bedford found that nearly 75 percent of the workers in its seafood processing industry were undocumented immigrants. The US Department of Labor certified over 5,700 H2-B visas for seafood related positions in 2014, a marked 15 percent increase over 2013. Because employers grant H2-B visas, those on the receiving end are particularly vulnerable. Due to threats of retaliation by employers—including firing, which can result in deportation—guestworkers are often hesitant to report mistreatment. “Hours were long, wages were bad, housing was terrible—but we were all afraid that if we spoke up, we would lose our jobs, our housing, and our ability to ever come back to the US to work,” longtime H-2B guestworker Olivia Guzman Garfias told the NGA.

Here are some more striking details from the NGA’s report:

  • In housing provided by processing companies in both the Louisiana Gulf and New Bedford, Mass., workers reported living with up to 20 people per trailer, without access to proper sanitation and sometimes with strict curfews.
  • Of the 126 seafood workers surveyed in New Bedford, 25 percent reported having been injured on the job. The majority of workers reported having to purchase their own safety equipment.
  • 44 percent reported not being paid for overtime work.
  • At times, piece rates for pounds of shrimp prorated to levels well below minimum wage, as low as $2 per hour, and employers sometimes failed to pay promised rates. According to NGA Organizing Director Jacob Horwitz: “Stealing wages is standard business practice. The financial incentive to underpay guestworkers is far greater than the risk of getting caught.”
  • Female workers experienced sexual harassment and verbal abuse in the workplace as well as in company-provided housing. Some women spoke of unwanted sexual advances by company brass, and of being fired for rebuffing such advances.

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Medium

May 9, 2016

A VOICE FOR DIGITAL DAY LABORERS

What can Uber and other tech companies learn from a day laborer corner?

by Saket Soni

For centuries, migrants in search of work have arrived at street corners to offer their services as day laborers. These workers have always been an essential part of our economy, taking on some of the most important work projects in our country’s history, including, in recent years, the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. They did these daunting jobs one gig at a time, without the prospect of permanent, full-time work.

Throughout this history, workers have faced horrific exploitation. I remember showing up at the day labor corners in post Katrina New Orleans with organizers, to defend day labors from abuse. In the last few decades, in New Orleans and across the country, waves of day laborers who faced wage theft and racial discrimination have organized collectively for a voice in the analog gig economy.

Then the digital gig economy came along. Now, workers in search of short-term work don’t have to go to the day labor corner over by Home Depot. They can hop onto a platform through their smart phones. And the disruptive technology companies that created the digital gig economy are now turning their attention to worker organizing.

First, a few weeks ago, Airbnb — the home sharing app taking on the hotel industry — was reported briefly to be in conversations promoting a $15 minimum wage and the use of unionized house cleaners by hosts. That same day, Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber — the ride sharing app destabilizing the taxi cab industry — wrote that the company will create drivers’ associations in California and Massachusetts “to discuss the issues that matter most to drivers” as part of the $84 million settlement in a class action lawsuit against the company.

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Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum (@RosenbaumJJ) is a Robina Foundation Visiting Human Rights Fellow at the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School.

From the on-demand economy to construction sites and fields, joint employer liability continues to be fundamental to combating growing inequality and substandard conditions for workers.

The U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) started 2016 with two strong commitments on this issue – new administrative guidance and new data collection efforts.  The International Labor Organization (ILO) also takes up these issues in June as part of its general discussion on decent work in global supply chains.  And trade unions and workers’ centers continue their organizing and campaigns providing critical information, analysis, and momentum.

New Joint Employer Administrative Interpretation

On January 20, 2016, the USDOL issued a new Administrative Interpretation (AI) from Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil reminding business entities that they may be jointly liable for minimum wage and overtime obligations towards workers even where they are not the “employer” for purposes of payroll or other common law definitions.  The AI follows six months after USDOL’s guidance on independent contractor misclassification and the National Labor Relations Board’s decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, which expanded the NLRB’s joint employer standard.

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Tech companies, labor advocates, and think tankers of all stripes call for sweeping reforms to the social safety net

But is it possible to let tech-enabled companies offer some benefits to independent contractors, without eroding those of traditional employees?

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Buzzfeed News

November 11, 2015

Companies Sued By Workers Want To Find A Way To Protect Them

by Caroline O’Donovan

An open letter was published today — on Medium, of course — that calling for a portable benefits system for workers. The letter was signed by a coalition of tech founders and CEOs, venture capitalists and funders, and non-profit and foundation executives, as well as a few representatives from the alternative labor movement.

The document argues that, in the face of a workforce that is increasingly likely to include self-employed individuals working for multiple entities, the U.S. needs to fundamentally reimagine how benefits — “such as workers compensation, unemployment insurance, paid time off, retirement savings, and training” — are distributed. Traditionally, it has been the responsibility of an employer to provide these programs. But today, the letter argues, considering the way digital platforms have fragmented the labor force, that system no longer makes the most sense.

The letter is supposed to demonstrate a sense of solidarity around the issue of benefits for gig workers, an issue that unites such strange bedfellows as labor organizations and San Francisco tech startups. The letter itself is relatively toothless; it doesn’t make specific policy recommendations, and so far it hasn’t been officially endorsed by any regulators. It does, however, confirm that issues of workers’ rights have a broad momentum right now. What the letter doesn’t address — and what may eventually divide those who signed it — is whether actually providing benefits to these workers ultimately falls to labor organizers or private entities.

Many of the companies that signed this document are the very same companies responsible for the fragmentation of the workforce in the first place. The founders of Lyft, which hires independent contractors to drive cars, signed it. So did the CEO of Handy, which dispatches contract workers to clean houses. The CEO of Instacart, which relies on a team of drivers and shoppers to deliver groceries to customers, is also on there. Partners from the venture capital firms that fund these companies (or those like them) — Homebrew, Greylock Partners, Union Square Ventures and Second Avenue Partners — also signed on.

And many, in fact, are being sued by workers who say they were misclassified as contractors and are owed compensation for the pay and benefits they thereby missed out on. (Note that this is not true of all signatories; the CEO of Etsy also signed, for example, and while that company does profit off the work of self-employed crafters, it’s not currently being sued by any.)

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The Hill

November 03, 2015

Lifting the floor in the next American economy

by Saket Soni and Sarita Gupta

The deeper we get into presidential election season, the more questions the candidates face—and should—about how they’ll combat income inequality and increase economic opportunity.

They should start by protecting the most vulnerable workers in the U.S.: low-wage immigrant workers.

Shellion Parris was recruited to come to the United States from Jamaica on an H-2B guestworker visa and clean luxury condos on Florida’s Emerald Coast. She was trapped by crushing program-related debt, overpriced company housing that left her with zero-dollar paychecks, and retaliatory threats of firing and deportation when she and fellow workers went on strike. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services said it added up to involuntary servitude—but still denied the workers protection from deportation as victims of a serious crime.

Jose Adan Fugon and Gustavo Barahona were waiting for a ride to work when local police near New Orleans racially profiled them and detained them without charge. Jose and Gustavo were improperly transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which scheduled them for deportation—in spite of a Department of Homeland Security civil rights review that confirmed the racial profiling and recommended the workers be released. National pressure forced ICE to release Gustavo, but the agency had already deported Jose.

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The Nation
October 21, 2015
She Came to the US, Was Forced Into Indentured Servitude, and Now Faces Deportation

by Michelle Chen

When Shellion Parris talked about her experience as a “guestworker” at the White House earlier this month, the 35-year-old Jamaican immigrant told a tale familiar to many immigrants. She had taken on debt to secure a work visa for the United States, because she had hoped to land a job as a cleaner in this country, only to be defrauded, forced into indentured servitude, and ultimately threatened with deportation. But she told a tale of heroism, too: She and her fellow guestworkers had staged a dramatic protest campaign in 2013, and she is now a leading immigrant activist.

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Medium.com

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.

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YES! Magazine

October 8, 2015

80 Percent of Us Owe Money to Institutions. Can We Leverage It to Reduce Inequality? Three visionaries discuss how America’s debt problem has transformed the movements they work with

by Kate Aronoff

Among the most fascinating aspects of debt today is the fact that just about everybody has some. While we may not agree on which institutions are responsible or who should pay, at least 80 percent of us owe money—to banks, hospitals, universities or otherwise. How can organizers leverage this sad fact to build movements? Can the ubiquity of debt open the door to solutions that address its root causes, like severe inequality and massive disinvestment in the public sphere?

A number of organizations are attempting to do just that, by situating campaigns against debt within struggles for economic freedom and racial justice, imagining creative approaches for taking it on at the personal, institutional and systemic level.

To hear more about this work, YES! and the New Economy Coalition put together a conversation between organizers who each approach debt from a different angle. Alexandra Flores-Quilty is elected president of the United States Student Association, the country’s oldest and largest student-led organization. Saket Soni is co-founder and executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to organize immigrant workers at the heart of New Orleans’ reconstruction—many of whom took out large loans just to enter the country. And Luke Herrine is legal coordinator for the Debt Collective, a membership-based organization that offers debtors—including the debt-striking students of the Corinthian 200—a shared platform for organization, advocacy, and direct action.

This interview has been edited for clarity—but you can watch the whole conversation at the bottom of the page.


Kate Aronoff: I want to start with a really basic question: What’s wrong with debt and why is it worth fighting against?

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Facing South

August 26, 2015

Organizing for a true reconstruction in the Gulf Coast: An interview with labor leader Saket Soni
by Allie Yee

Saket Soni is a national labor leader and an organizer of day laborers, immigrant workers, guest workers and others in New Orleans, the South and the country. He is the executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance, which were formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to organize vulnerable workers in the city’s reconstruction.

Soni, who has written about his own experiences as an undocumented immigrant, has organized several successful, multiracial campaigns since Katrina, including an eight-year campaign that culminated in a $20 million settlement earlier this year for guest workers from India against shipbuilding company Signal International in Mississippi. Signal was convicted in February of human trafficking and other labor violations. The Workers’ Center and its affiliates have also achieved significant wins on immigration issues and living wage campaigns and have expanded their work across the country and internationally.

Facing South recently caught up with Soni to get his take on progress made since Katrina and lessons learned since the storm hit the Gulf Coast 10 years ago this week. This interview has been edited for clarity.

What brought you to the Gulf Coast after Katrina in 2005?

When Katrina hit, I was a community organizer in Chicago. I was knocking on doors and talking to low-income renters in Chicago’s South Side … When the levees broke, I remember it shattering the myth that people were doing OK. I was just trying to make sense of how a disaster like that could happen in the United States and how it could be followed by such extraordinary inaction.

In order to make sense of it, I came down to New Orleans. … In many ways, I came down in search of an organizing tradition that I had heard about, which was the tradition of Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Many of my mentors post-Katrina in the Gulf Coast ended up being the people who were shaped by Ella Baker. I ended up staying and founding the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice in the midst of that and trying my best to follow that tradition.

What was the situation for workers in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina hit?

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