Category: Press Statements

march-350WASHINGTON, July 30, 2014 — In a letter sent to the Obama administration, a broad coalition of 153 civil rights, faith-based, and labor groups urged that any executive action on immigration uphold workers’ ability to press for their rights on the job.

The letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson called for “measures to ensure that workplace retaliation and the enforcement of immigration law do not continue to interfere with workers’ ability to assert their rights on the job.” Secretary Johnson is developing specific recommendations on executive actions to address the broken immigration system at the request of President Obama.

As the letter states, the current immigration system is being abused by exploitative employers who use workers’ immigration status against them, maintaining an underground economy characterized by substandard working conditions and below-market or illegally low pay. Workers who complain about substandard or dangerous conditions, wage theft, or civil rights violations are threatened with firing and immigration-based retaliation.

“A policy change is urgently needed,” the letter to Secretary Johnson says. “We urge you to enact broad relief along with enforcement reforms to guarantee that DHS policies do not interfere with workers’ rights and that immigration enforcement and retaliation are not used by abusive employers. By acting and improving protections for workers who expose illegal workplace conditions, you will raise the standards of all this nation’s workplaces.”

Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said, “All workers, regardless of where they were born, should be able to stand up for a safe and just work environment without fearing that they will be ripped from their families by standing up for the safety of their coworkers. Unfortunately, that’s the reality many immigrant workers face today.”

“Until this issue is addressed, abusive employers will continue to game the system at the expense of good employers, and workers’ job site conditions and pay will remain artificially depressed, dragging down the economy,” Hincapié said. “President Obama has the legal authority and moral responsibility to act now.”

Added Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, “We have renewed hope that we will see substantive relief from our nation’s broken immigration system this year. But relief must come with the responsibility of ensuring that our nation’s most vulnerable workers will have their rights protected on the job. Bad employers should no longer be able to game the system at the expense of all working people.”

Rocio Saenz, executive vice president of SEIU said, “The letter is intended to call DHS’s attention to the downward impact that workplace immigration enforcement can have on wages and working conditions. Our experience is that some of the worst employers actually benefit from the current policies because those who pay the best in a given industry tend to be targeted disproportionately, which lowers wages for all workers.”

“We urge President Obama to take immediate action to protect the millions of immigrant workers currently facing labor abuse,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “The undocumented cannot be a permanent underclass of exploited workers. We need strong worker protections to end their exploitation — and to lift the floor for the tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them.”

The letter to Secretary Johnson is available at www.nilc.org/document.html?id=1116.

On June 30, 2014, President Barack Obama announced plans to take executive action on immigration reform. The below is a response by Saket Soni, Executive Director of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) and New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice:

Today President Obama said that he needed to take action to reform immigration because under the status quo, employers are gaming the system and driving down wages.

That’s exactly why administrative immigration reform has to protect workers. Every day, immigrant workers who speak out against illegal wages, health and safety violations, and workplace discrimination face illegal retaliation from employers: firing and deportation. This not only traps immigrant workers in exploitation, it drives down wages and conditions for tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can break this cycle by following the civil and labor rights recommendations that the New Orleans Workers’ Center presented to it in May. That means ensuring that DHS actions do not discourage workers from taking action to protect and enforce their own rights and the rights of their coworkers, and that immigration enforcement doesn’t undermine workers’ wages and conditions. It also means DHS must ensure protections for civil rights leaders who come forward to expose the on-the-ground realities of workplace abuse.

President Obama should also stop appeasing the far right by caving in to xenophobia and demagoguery. That strategy has failed, and his announcement today shows that he knows it — but his move to expedite the deportations of unaccompanied children threatens to continue the failure.

Instead, the President should focus on protecting the civil and labor rights of immigrant workers and families, for the sake of every worker in America.

This week, The Guardian reported that Walmart and other major retailers are selling seafood produced by Burmese migrant workers trafficked onto slave ships in Thailand.

The below statement is by Olivia Guzman, a guestworker in the U.S. seafood industry and member of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), on June 13, 2014:

Olivia-statement-350Watching the report on conditions for workers on these slave ships, I’m angry and appalled. It is clear that slavery is still alive in 2014.

As a longtime migrant worker who came from Mexico to the U.S. on H-2B visas, I know what it means to leave your home to find a way to support your family. Compared to the workers from Burma and Thailand who ended up being sold onto slave ships, my fellow guestworkers and I are privileged. At the same time, we see ourselves in them. We also arrive to a system where bosses hold us in abusive conditions by using threats. For the workers in Thailand the threats are violence and death. For us in the United States the threats are deportation and blacklisting.

I joined the NGA in 2009 because I had seen too much abuse, and I wanted to change it. I worked in seafood processing on the supply chains of Walmart and other retailers for nearly 17 years. My fellow workers and I have often been paid below the minimum wage. We live in crowded labor camps on company property under constant surveillance. We fear firing, deportation, and blacklisting all the time. In one plant supervisors even hit us to make us work faster. When workers spoke up, employers would silence them with the threat of blacklisting: locking workers out of jobs permanently by removing them from the employment list and reporting them to immigration so they would no longer be able to work in the U.S.

As a member of the NGA I met many other workers like me and began to organize. I spoke up in meetings, visited worksites, and brought grievances about the labor camp to my boss.  For that I was blacklisted this season. I knew about this risk, but I knew that if I didn’t speak up, the abuse would keep getting worse. I’ve been encouraging my co-workers here to stand up and organize, and I want to tell the migrant workers enslaved in Thailand to do the same.

Walmart and other major brands should be ashamed of profiting from this abuse, and they should work to stop it. They should take responsibility for conditions we migrant workers face on their supply chains in the U.S. and in Thailand. Walmart is a very powerful company, and if they want to stop this abuse, they can do it.

Stopping buying from a known abuser isn’t enough. Brands need to make sure their suppliers enact protections to block forced labor and threats of retaliation, which keep workers from coming forward to report abuse and exploitation.

That’s why we have launched the NGA Forced Labor Prevention Accord. We urge major retailers like Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, and others to sign the accord as a step toward avoiding this extreme abuse.

Workers around the world have shown bravery to stand up against abuse and forced labor. Big retailers need to do the same.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

Guestworkers Expose Blacklisting in LA Seafood Industry

Workers confront employer, file federal complaint after blacklisting

6-4-14 action 350NEW ORLEANS, LA—On Thursday, June 5, 2014, guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) launched a fight to end blacklisting by employers in the seafood industry—a weapon of coercion that silences workers and contributes to forced labor.

Workers and community allies from the Congress of Day Laborers and STAND with Dignity filed a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint against Bayou Land Seafood, which blacklisted guestworker Olivia Guzman after she joined the NGA and spoke out against sub-minimum wage pay, decrepit housing, and organized her coworkers to try to improve working conditions at Bayou Land and across the industry.

“My sister and brother-in-law won’t even talk to me now because they don’t want to be cut off,” Olivia said. “That’s why we have to fight this. If we don’t, the bosses and their recruiters will see that they can just blacklist anyone who demands their rights, and more and more abuse will happen.”

Employers and recruiters use blacklisting—refusing to rehire guestworkers and/or reporting them to immigration authorities—as a weapon of coercion against guestworkers, who depend entirely on the ability to return to the U.S. each year for regular seasonal work.

Olivia defied the threats and helped form the Seafood Worker Organizing Committee, alongside former guestworkers from Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood, which subjected guestworkers to forced labor. Olivia has also served as a guestworker on the Walmart supply chain.

“When I decided to become a leader in the NGA, I knew what I was exposing myself to, but I had seen too much abuse to stay silent,” Olivia said. “I had to fight for my rights and the rights of all workers.”

On June 4, Olivia and allies confronted her former employer at the Bayou Land Seafood plant in Cecilia, LA, but he refused to rehire her or pledge to protect future workers from blacklisting.

After filing the NLRB complaint on June 5, Olivia and her allies delivered formal requests to Walmart, Whole Foods, and Target, asking that they refuse to purchase seafood from Bayou Land Seafood until the company agrees to rehire Olivia and sign the NGA’s Forced Labor Prevention Accord, which would protect workers from blacklisting and other forms of employer coercion.

“Major retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods can end forced labor on their U.S. supply chains any time they want,” said NGA Lead Organizer Jacob Horwitz. “They set the standards for their suppliers, and they need to demand an end to blacklisting as a weapon of fear.”

In coming weeks, NGA and its members will engage with workers, allies, and consumers to encourage retailers and other seafood buyers to sign the Forced Labor Prevention Accord.

Resources:

CONTACTS:

Stephen Boykewich, 323-594-2347, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org

Jacob Horwitz, 504-452-9159, jacob@guestworkeralliance.org

On February 18, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor vindicated the J-1 student guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) who went on strike from McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania in March 2013. The USDOL cited the McDonald’s franchisee for minimum wage violations against 291 fast food workers, awarding them $205,977 in back wages and liquidated damages.

Below is a statement by NGA Executive Director Saket Soni:

Credit: Christine Baker | pennlive.com

Today, some of the most vulnerable workers in America—immigrant guestworkers—won a major victory not only for themselves, but for the U.S. workers alongside them. Brave student guestworkers from Argentina, Malaysia, and other countries defied threats of retaliation and went on strike to end the severe exploitation they faced at McDonald’s stores last year, including sub-minimum wage pay, unpaid overtime, and overpriced company housing. These NGA members won $205,977 in back wages and damages not only for the 178 guestworkers who worked at these McDonald’s stores, but for 113 U.S. fast food workers alongside them, including formerly incarcerated people and political refugees.

This victory comes as tens of thousands of McDonald’s workers around the U.S. are demanding a living wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. McDonald’s must meet those demands.

But this victory also shows that raising wages is not enough. As long as employers like McDonald’s can use threats of retaliation and deportation to exploit immigrant workers, the wages and conditions of the U.S. workers alongside them will never be secure. But by protecting the right to organize for the most vulnerable workers, we help raise the floor for every worker in the U.S.

President Obama stressed in his State of the Union that he’s ready to take executive action to combat income inequality. That action needs to include protections for immigrant workers who come forward to expose abuse from retaliatory deportation.

And now that the DOL has vindicated these workers, McDonald’s corporate can’t hide behind its franchisee and wash its hands of the abuse. McDonald’s must:

  1. Conduct an audit of its franchisees and reveal where else guestworkers are working so that NGA can ensure they are free from abuse;
  2. Publicly commit that when any McDonald’s franchisee commits wage theft or other labor law violations, McDonald’s corporate will take responsibility by making the workers whole and punishing the franchisee; and
  3. Meet the nationwide demand for a $15 an hour wage and the right to form a union without retaliation.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347


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