Category: RokStories

On Thursday, November 20, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a plan for administrative immigration reform that will grant work authorization and temporary legal status to up to 5 million undocumented immigrants.

The following is a statement by Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance:

url-5We applaud President Obama for getting on the right side of history. The reforms he announced tonight were possible because millions of immigrant workers raised their voices, and the president listened.

Why these reforms are needed is nowhere clearer than in New Orleans, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement has created a brutal regime of racial profiling-based community raids that have undercut basic civil and labor rights.

Still, the temporary reforms are exactly that. They are not a substitute for full citizenship in our democracy and our economy, and we will continue to fight for a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Because the 5 million people covered by the president’s reform are overwhelmingly the workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy, raising their wages and conditions will be crucial to lifting the floor for all workers in the U.S.

For years, we have exposed how employers in the South and around the U.S. use the threat of deportation as a weapon to stop workers from exposing labor abuse, and as a form of retaliation against worker organizing.

This makes it a major victory that the president’s reforms include expanded protections for victims of trafficking and other crimes who are participating in government investigations, as well as the creation of an interagency working group to “explore ways to ensure that workers can avail themselves of their labor and employment rights without fear of retaliation.” When the immigrant workers at the bottom of our economy can organize for their rights without fear of retaliation, it helps raise the floor for all workers.

At the same time, the millions of immigrants not included by the president’s reforms are at risk of becoming a permanent underclass of exploitable workers. Those workers deserve the same fundamental civil and labor rights that we all do—and we’ll keep fighting for them.

Finally, we are concerned that the U.S. will be bringing more guestworkers into the tech sector without fundamental changes to the H1-B visa program that give workers the right to organize and access basic labor rights. We will continue to be a voice for guestworkers and the U.S. workers alongside them.

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

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.

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

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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