Category: Press Coverage

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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The Hill op-ed

August 8, 2015

Life as Donald Trump’s guestworker
By Saket Soniguestworkers_201_350

What’s it like being a guestworker for Donald Trump?

I don’t know firsthand. But as director of the National Guestworker Alliance, I’ve met and organized thousands of guestworkers in the same federal visa programs Trump used to apply for over 1,000 foreign workers for his companies since 2000. So I’ve got some pretty good guesses.

If Trump’s guestworkers are like the overwhelming majority of workers in the H-2A, H-2B, and H-1B programs, they were lured by recruiters in their home countries who promised them steady work, good pay, and the chance to provide for their families.

Maybe they’d heard stories from friends and relatives who’d gone to the U.S. as guestworkers with high hopes, only to face brutal conditions, stolen wages, threats of physical violence by bosses, sexual harassment and even assault.
But they must have decided it was worth the risk—likely because the prospects at home were even grimmer. Many guestworkers, especially in the H-2A and H-2B programs, come from areas wracked by economic desperation and violence, such as Mexico’s Sinaloa region, home to the drug cartel that U.S. authorities call the most dangerous in the world.

It would have felt like another world at workplaces like Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Country Club in Florida, which has obtained 350 visas for H-2B waitstaff, cooks, and housekeepers since 2009, according to U.S. Department of Labor records. “Located within 20 acres of perfectly landscaped gardens and with ocean views, Mar-a-Lago is truly the crown jewel of Palm Beach,” Trump says in a welcome message on the club’s website.

But the website’s promises of an “incomparable, royal lifestyle” in “the greatest mansion ever built” wouldn’t extend to Trump’s guestworkers. They would have arrived in the U.S., like all guestworkers in the H-2B program, with two strikes against them.

First, they would be bound to the Mar-A-Lago by program rules. If they left their employer for any reason, they would be immediately out of status and facing deportation. Second, they would be facing crushing debt in their home countries from program-related fees and recruitment costs, and no way to pay them back. In essence, no matter what kind of workplace abuse they might face—from the wage theft and threats of blacklisting faced by H-2B guestworkers at other Florida resorts, to the forced labor exposed by H-2B workers on Walmart’s U.S. supply chain—they’d be trapped.

Any abuse they faced wouldn’t just hurt them. One of the reasons low-road employers love guestworker programs is that by trapping guestworkers in exploitation, they can drive down wages and conditions for the U.S. workers in the same industries. With more than 24 million U.S. workers work alongside guestworkers in the core H-2B industries of hospitality, construction, landscaping, and food processing, that’s a problem that touches just about everyone.

Otherwise, low-road employers can use guestworker programs to simply replace U.S. workers with cheaper, more exploitable workers—as did Disney late last year, laying off 250 IT workers to replace them with H-1B guestworkers, but requiring the local workers to train their replacements first. Employers seeking guestworkers are technically required to certify that no U.S. workers are available for the job, but there’s virtually no way to hold them to their word.

So why is Donald Trump, while promising to be “the greatest jobs president that God has ever created,” relying on programs that are rife with abuse and forced labor, programs that drive down wages and conditions for millions of U.S. workers—or else deprive them of jobs altogether? Why is he seeking H-2B guestworkers, 80 percent of whom come from Mexico, then defaming Mexican migrants as “rapists”? We know Trump’s not afraid of tough questions. So we’d like to hear his answers.

And it’s one thing to guess at what life is like for Trump’s guestworkers. But we’d like to ask them ourselves. It won’t be easy for them to speak up: if the bosses at Trump’s workplaces are like those at many other guestworker employers, they may be holding captive audience meetings with Trump’s guestworkers right now, threatening them with firing, deportation, and blacklisting if they speak up about abuse.

Of course, Trump could just plead ignorance about the whole thing—however out of character that would be.

But at the end of the day, shouldn’t a man who claims his business experience is the reason he should be the next president of the United States be able to answer for how, and with whom, he runs his businesses?

What do you say, Donald?

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

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/labor/250599-life-as-donald-trumps-guestworker

The Hill op-ed

May 11, 2015

By Saket Sonivarwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphpgJDsww

What do Vietnamese refugees, prison laborers, and H-2B guestworkers have in common? More than they should.

On Wednesday, testimony before the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee revealed the dirty truth about why low-road businesses have been fighting so hard to stop the Department of Labor (DOL) from reforming the H-2B guestworker program.

The H-2B program has become notorious in recent years for case after case of severe labor exploitation—often rising to the level of forced labor—especially in the seafood processing industry.
So it was fitting that Wednesday’s hearing included testimony by Frank Randol, owner of a Louisiana seafood processing business. Randol spoke out to condemn new H-2B program rules by the DOL and Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—long-overdue reforms that provide basic labor protections for guestworkers and the more than 24 million U.S. workers alongside them in core H-2B industries.

Randol told how his company had once employed Vietnamee refugees to do his seafood processing work. More recently, he used prison laborers through a “trustee program”—though by his own testimony, the incarcerated workers found conditions so poor that they preferred to return to prison rather than continue working at Randol’s plant.

Now that Randol has come to rely on H-2B workers, he complained that he was facing a threat he suggested was as dangerous to his business as floods and hurricanes: workers standing up for their rights.

For low-road employers who are determined to shop for the cheapest, most exploitable workers possible—those least able to exercise basic labor rights—the H-2B program has been a boon. H-2B employers routinely subject their guestworkers to brutal conditions and pay far below minimum wage, and use threats of firing and blacklisting to silence worker complaints. The H-2B program binds workers to a single employer, so firing means deportation to workers’ home countries, where they face crushing program-related debts and no way to pay them back.

The DOL has been trying to institute protections against this kind of abuse since 2012. Employers, industry groups, and their Congressional backers have fought desperately to block them—even while federal courts and the General Accounting Office affirmed that the program’s flaws were driving down wages and conditions for all workers.

So what exactly is in the new rules that Randol and others find so threatening?

  • prohibitions on employer intimidation, blacklisting, or other discriminatory behavior against guestworkers who seek to enforce their rights or consult with workers’ centers or attorneys;
  • protections to prevent employers from shifting the costs of travel, visa, and recruitment to H-2B workers, which would help eliminate debt servitude;
  • stronger guarantees that unemployed U.S. workers have a chance to learn about and apply for the jobs;
  • an employer registration process that could expedite the labor certification process; and
  • stronger rules to debar employers and agents who abuse the program.

 

If these don’t sound like radical measures, it’s because they’re not. They’re commonsense, long-overdue rules that will protect millions of U.S. workers, guestworkers, and the high-road employers who are currently being undercut by businesses that profit from exploitation.

Low-road employers will always put greed over worker dignity. And business lobbyists will meet any rule or reform, however good for workers and high-road employers, with cookie-cutter complaints of overregulation.

The DOL and DHS have taken an important step against the race to the bottom that’s taken a toll on every worker in the U.S. You don’t have to listen to workers and their advocates to understand why we need these new rules. It’s just as clear when you listen to their critics.

Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/labor/241500-low-road-employers-hit-a-dead-end

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


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