Category: Press Coverage


October 19, 2016

The Question 55 Million American Workers Have For The Next U.S. President

By Saket Soni

On Wednesday, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will share the stage for their last debate before the presidential election. Donald Trump is sure to face questions about the allegations of sexual assault he faces from more than a dozen women. Hillary Clinton is certain to face continued questionsover her private email server during her time as Secretary of State. But there’s another question both candidates should both face — one that affects of tens of millions of Americans and makes national headlines nearly every day, but has yet to draw comment from either candidate.

The question is: how do you plan to guarantee economic security for workers in our nation as work changes and America’s workers become increasingly insecure?

The American economy is undergoing a fundamental transformation. As President Obama has himself acknowledged, the old deal between workers, employers, and government is breaking down. Workers can no longer count on the kinds of permanent full-time jobs that brought benefits and long-term stability to previous generations. American voters know this: the insurgencies in both major political parties during the primaries were in part an expression of public frustration with our country’s broken social contract.

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Open Democracy

October 6, 2006

Voices from the supply chain: an interview with the National Guestworker Alliance

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery speaks with JJ Rosenbaum of the National Guestworker Alliance on ways to protect workers in global supply chains, including a global minimum wage.

BTS: So, JJ, could you tell us why this year’s ILC was particularly important?

JJ: This year the ILC took up the issue of global supply chains for the first time. Global supply chains are increasingly the way that the world economy is organised. So it is fundamental for the ILO to speak about them and to bring a workers’ perspective to the issues that they raise.

BTS: What did you want to see result from this year’s ILC?

JJ: I thought it important that the dialogue this year be a first step towards a broader process of standard setting for working conditions in global supply chains. We know that supply chains involve significant exploitation of migrant workers, of women workers, and of others, and we know that there are problems with wage levels and with freedom of association. So national supply chain standards are no longer enough – what we need is something global.

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October 4, 2016

Bringing Stability to the United States of Anxiety

Michelle Miller, Sarita Gupta, and Saket Soni

The gig economy isn’t new. Day laborers, domestic workers, construction workers, and many other workers — frequently low-wage people of color — have been living in it for decades. But with the rise of app-based labor platforms like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Handy, and with traditional companies laying off formerly full-time workers en masse only to rehire them as freelancers, the gig economy is provoking national anxieties like never before.

That’s why it’s time to develop a new generation of employment benefits and protections that meet the challenges of the gig economy.

Workers on app-based platforms still make up a small part of the total U.S. workforce, but they’re part of a full 40% of the American workforce that is now in non-traditional work arrangements of one kind or another, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. That includes agency temps, direct-hire temps, on-call workers, part-time workers, day laborers, and subcontracted workers.

What’s more, several of the technology companies that employ workers through apps have already transformed their industries. Uber and Lyft have dramatically disrupted the taxi business, while localities have struggled to regulate them. In the hotel industry, AirBnB’s current $10 billion valuation is bigger than that of global hotel chains like Hyatt. Apps like Task Rabbit have brought day labor corners online, and “crowdsourcing” platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk plunge tens of thousands of workers into an entirely unregulated market for as little as a dollar an hour.

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September 29, 2016

The Explosion on West Delta 32 E

The fallout from an accident two years after Deepwater Horizon reveals safety is still an issue for Gulf oil workers.

by Justin Nobel

At 7 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2012, as the morning’s first rays spilled across the Gulf of Mexico, nine Filipino men began their workday on an oil platform about 10 miles off the coast of Louisiana. To these skilled laborers, in the U.S. on temporary visas, it was perhaps just another day out on the cobalt-blue Gulf, working a foreign nation’s offshore oil patch so they could send money back to their families 8,000 miles away. But Ellroy Corporal, Jerome Malagapo, and Avelino Tajonera had a difficult task that morning: upgrading a pipe that helped pass oil pumped from beneath the seabed into Louisiana’s vast network of shore-bound pipelines. The job involved welding, which on an oil platform means spraying bits of fire onto a deck loaded with explosive fuel.

West Delta Block 32 Platform E looked like an extremely complicated swim dock, stacked with pipes and tanks. Using a pneumatic saw, one of the men cut away a two-foot section of pipe. Exposed edges were smoothed using an electric grinder. A pair of metal flanges would allow new piping to fit seamlessly into the old section. One worker held the first flange, another squared it, and the third was to weld the piece into place. Before the welding torch was lit, one of the men asked the others if they smelled a gas-like odor. Neither responded.

The offshore oil and gas industry calls welding hot work, which requires a special permit outlining safety precautions. But the appropriate permit for hot work that day on West Delta 32 E was never issued. Two portable gas detectors that should have been taken to the platform were broken. The Filipino men were working for an oil industry service provider called Grand Isle Shipyard. According to an investigation by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees the U.S. offshore oil and gas industry, a GIS supervisor told the men not to worry and suggested they “hang the non-functioning gas detector up like a ‘decoration’ so everyone could at least see that they had one.” Another contractor had told the workers that the pipes had been purged and that West Delta 32 E was safe. In fact the pipes they were about to apply a welding torch to were laced with flammable hydrocarbon vapors. The platform was a ticking time bomb.

Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations, the platform’s operator, had hired Wood Group PSN, a large oil services firm registered in Scotland that operates in more than 50 countries, to manage operations. A senior Wood Group officer was supposed to attend a morning safety meeting in the galley. This individual could have told the men the pipes had not been purged of vapors or asked why a hot work permit had not been issued. Instead a lower-level Wood Group employee attended the galley safety meeting, but “merely out of coincidence,” according to the BSEE report. The man sat eating his breakfast and didn’t pay attention.

Some electromagnetic waves can circle the earth seven and a half times in one second. Your brain’s nerve signals can cover 22 miles in that time. A radio signal can travel to space and back. By comparison, fire travels slowly. And in the way time seems to halt when the brain is faced with danger, fire must seem especially slow when it’s spreading right in front of your face.

The welding torch was lit. Hydrocarbon vapors ignited. One one thousand. A string of fire ran through the piping and into a set of three oil tanks.

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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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May 9, 2016


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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