Category: RokStories

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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ILO end 350JUNE 10, 2016, Geneva – At the International Labour Conference (ILC) today, the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted the report of the Committee on Decent Work in Supply Chains. The report recognizes the poor treat of workers in global supply chains as well as the responsibility of multinational brands and retailers to address them.

A delegation of workers and worker advocates, including NGA members and staff, attended the ILC to push for enforceable international standards to prevent abuses in global supply chains. The delegation, which released five reports on garment and seafood supply chains, praised the newly adopted report for mandating an ILO review of crucial issues facing supply chain workers, including extremely low wages and the disproportionate deterioration of the rights of women and migrant workers.

The next steps laid out in the report represent a historic step forward for the ILO in its first-ever tripartite dialogue on global supply chains. However, the delegation expressed a need for urgency in pursuing those steps. The group also expressed regret that employers resisted basic points throughout the dialogue and repeatedly attempted to shift responsibility to national governments instead of contractors and suppliers.

While the ILO and governments have a crucial role to play, the delegation will continue to demand action by the multinational brands and retailers that set prices globally and bear ultimate responsibility for conditions in supplier factories. The delegation believes that nothing short of binding agreements, enforceable by workers and their organizations, will ultimately hold multinational brands and retailers accountable for their supply chains.

The full delegation statement, and statements from individual delegation representatives, are below:

June 10, 2016

Geneva

Today, the General Body of the International Labor Organization adopted the report of the Committee on Decent Work in Supply Chains setting forth next steps including the convening of experts to review global supply chains and study the need for a new ILO instrument.

The Committee’s report adopted by the General Body recognizes the decent work deficit for workers at the end of supply chains, the restructuring of employment relationships brought on by multinationals’ expansion of the global value chain model across sectors which has decreased standards for workers, and the importance of “lead firm” responsibility in reversing negative impacts for workers.

With these steps, the ILO’s General Body set forth a mandate to review core issues of concern to our delegation including extremely low wages and the disproportionate deterioration of the rights of women and migrant workers in global supply chains. The dialogue included significant discussion of women workers and migrant workers in the global supply chain. Home workers at the bottom of the supply chain were also explicitly discussed. These are big steps forward.

These next steps laid out in the report represent a historic step forward for the ILO in its first-ever tripartite dialogue on global supply chains at the International Labor Conference. These steps will ensure that the ILO’s work in this area continues on a steady course.

We are also encouraged that Indonesia’s Freedom of Association Protocol and the binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety are cited as good practices that merit scaling and replication. While the ILO and governments have important roles to play, nothing short of binding agreements, enforceable by workers and their organizations, will ultimately hold multinational brands and retailers accountable for their supply chains.

The dialogue, however, also foreshadowed the difficult road ahead of us. Employers resisted basic points throughout the dialogue, only to be forced to compromise by the sheer pressure of the trade unions and some governments. Employers tried very hard to “nationalize” the problem of human rights violations in the global supply chain by blaming governments for the violations. Governments, while taking responsibility, pointed out that their capacity was limited by the unaccountable activities of multinational enterprises. In particular, the employers’ objections to recognizing how global supply chains obscure employment relationships and the repeated denial of the role and responsibility of “lead firms” shows the importance of ongoing leadership by trade unions and worker organizations in the ILO’s follow-up steps. It will take continued advocacy to settle the details.

As a delegation of workers and worker advocates in Asia, Latin America, and the United States, we will continue to expand our grassroots research, which underscores the urgency and importance of the ILO’s work. Leading up to the ILO, we released five global supply chain reports on the seafood and garment supply chains in Asia and the United States and a documentary on the Asian garment industry. The reports generated significant media coverage in the United States, Europe, and Asia that reached the halls of the tripartite discussion and added to the heat on the employers. Moving forward, we will expand our research and analysis, also proposing recommendations on minimum living wage and global labor subcontracting supply chains arising from our research and organizing on garment, seafood, and care supply chains.

We will also continue to demand action by brands, governments, and the ILO for lead firm responsibility for living wages in global supply chains – an issue gaining support and momentum from trade unions and social movements in Asia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and others. Given that the ILO supports a basic living standard and a wage that meets the basic needs of workers and their families, and a minimum living wage is a basic demand of workers across the globe today, we expect attention and progress on wages in global supply chains in the ILO’s steps going forward.

We look forward to continuing to engage in this supply chain process at the ILO, and translate that into building worker power on the ground all across the world and eventually into a global supply chain standard, which the final document establishes as a possibility.

Our delegation offers the following additional statements from participants:

We need binding regulation on global supply chains, including seafood processing, and we are glad for this step forward at the ILO.  Right now in Massachusetts, Mirna and a group of women have demanded that Costco end retaliation against them for exposing sexual harassment and wage theft in one of its suppliers.  I have talked to hundreds of migrant women workers with similar experiences in the United States and Mexico.

Still I am hopeful.  In Geneva, I met with other women workers who are organizing in shops, factories, and their homes and we will continue forward, together, demanding decent work and a dignified life for all workers in global supply chains.

            Olivia Garfias Guzman, National Guestworker Alliance

Five years ago domestic workers successfully campaigned for global labor standards with the adoption of ILO Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Since then, 22 countries have ratified it and 15 million domestic workers have greater labor and social protections. If the ILO can create binding standards for domestic workers, it can and should do so for global supply chains. The workers who produce and provide the critical services for the global economy deserve no less.

            Jill Shenker, National Domestic Worker Alliance

It is possible for retail workers in countries like the United States to be in alliance and not be pitted against production workers in Asia. Brands like H&M, Walmart, and Gap, are capable of paying a living wage, providing safe working conditions, and giving workers greater control of their schedules at work.

   Ben Woods, Jobs With Justice

Asia Floor Wage Alliance will continue to organize with garment unions, bring to light fresh evidence of human rights violations in the global supply chain, and push for binding ILO regulation of multinationals and their supply chains.

                                                            Anannya Bhattacharjee, Asia Floor Wage Alliance

We came to Geneva because warehouse workers who distribute products made overseas for large retailers face temp employment, poverty wages, high rates of workplace accidents and discrimination. Our conversations with unions and worker advocates in producer countries like India, Indonesia and Bangladesh made clear that – although the severity differs – global supply chains create the same dynamic of unstable, precarious work and sub-living wages from the global south to the global north. Meetings like this help create the worker solidarity across supply chains that will be necessary to win the working conditions we all deserve. Our experience tells us that voluntary corporate supply chain initiatives don’t work. We need binding policies. That’s why we’re fighting for a strong ILO convention on decent work in global supply chains.

                                                Mark Meinster, Warehouse Workers for Justice

While global supply chains have revealed new forms of employment relationships that disadvantage workers – particularly women and migrants – this year’s dialogue lifted up new forms of organizing, collective bargaining, and corporate accountability from trade unions and workers’ centers. With these concrete next steps, the ILO steps into an important role advancing social dialogue towards raising the floor for working conditions and broader sharing of profits across the global value chain.

                                                Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, National Guestworker Alliance

 

rsz_58b36e96-3354-467d-89d3-7a1ceedde5da-2In June 2016, the NGA joined the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), a global coalition of trade unions, worker rights, and human rights organizations at the International Labor Conference in Geneva–demanding that the ILO help ensure that human rights cross borders.

The NGA has partnered with AFWA on a series of groundbreaking reports detailing human rights and labor abuses on global seafood and garment supply chains. The reports detail recommendations to improve working conditions worldwide, including a cross-border living wage. The NGA and AFWA, together with the rest of the Workers Conference Delegation, are pressing the ILO to move forward with setting global standards for supply chains that include wage protections, freedom of association, and freedom of migration.

Read the reports and media coverage:

 

 

On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division released guidance on joint employment: the increasingly common situation of a worker having two or more employers who are simultaneously responsible for complying with labor law.

The following is a statement by National Guestworker Alliance Director (NGA) Executive Director Saket Soni:

“Today’s guidance by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is an important step toward protecting some of America’s most vulnerable workers. As division administrator David Weil points out, it is becoming more and more common for businesses to source workers through temporary staffing agencies and independent contractors, in fields including construction, agricultural, janitorial, distribution and logistics, staffing, and hospitality.

“When these workers face labor abuse, staffing agencies try to shift the blame up the chain, and the employers on top try to shift the blame down, each claiming they’re not the ‘real’ employer. The result is that abuse goes unpunished, and wages and working standards fall for all workers.

“Today’s guidance clarifies that in joint employment situations like these, both employers are responsible before the law. As the guidance says, the Fair Labor Standards Act and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act were specifically written to ‘prevent employers from using “middlemen” to evade the laws’ requirements.’

“With the rise of contingent work, this matters to every worker in America. When employers can evade liability for abuse by claiming they’re not the ‘real’ employer, wages and conditions fall for all workers. But when workers can hold their employers responsible, they can fight for better workplaces for themselves and those alongside them—the way that subcontracted NGA worker-members in Louisiana shipyards and New Bedford seafood processing plants are fighting right now.

“We applaud the Wage and Hour Division for issuing this important and timely guidance.”

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

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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POWER Act Will Lift Floor for All Workers

Bill by Rep. Judy Chu provides crucial whistleblower protections for immigrant workers & U.S. workers alongside them

WASHINGTON, DC, November 5, 2015—On Thursday, Rep. Judy Chu (CA-32) introduced the POWER Act (Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation) to the U.S. House of Representatives. Co-sponsors included Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison (MN-5) and Rep. Robert Scott (VA-3).

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

“Every worker in the U.S. needs the POWER Act. More and more, U.S. workers face the same kind of vulnerability and instability that immigrant workers have long faced. The POWER Act ensures that when vulnerable immigrant workers stand up to blow the whistle on workplace abuse, employers can’t retaliate by threatening them with deportation. By helping immigrant workers expose abuse, the POWER Act also helps lift the floor for the tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them.

“Without the POWER Act, an immigrant worker like Shellion Parris can be recognized by the federal government as a victim of involuntary servitude, and still face deportation. Workers like Shellion deserve immediate protection from deportation when they blow the whistle on employer abuse, and deserve the ability to work while they pursue their claims. The POWER Act would provide it.

“The POWER Act would help protect high-road employers too, by making sure that they are not at a disadvantage to exploitative employers. It would also lets law enforcement agencies do their job by ensuring that witnesses and victims of workplace crimes aren’t deported in the middle of an investigation.

“By lifting the floor for every worker in the U.S., the POWER Act provides a crucial first step toward combating income inequality and expanding opportunity for all.”

The bill was endorsed in a sign-on letter by 72 civil, labor, and human rights organizations, including the National Guestworker Alliance.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 347-594-2347

The Hill

November 03, 2015

Lifting the floor in the next American economy

by Saket Soni and Sarita Gupta

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

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

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

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

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

by Michelle Chen

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

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Medium.com

October 12, 2015

We Can Move Mountains

by Shellion Parris

When I was a guestworker in Florida receiving $0 paychecks after working all week and hearing constant threats from my boss, I never dreamed that one day I would join a White House summit on Worker Voice and shake President Obama’s hand. The President held the summit because he believes workers need to be able to raise their voices for all of America to succeed. I came to add my own voice and the voices of one million other guestworkers in the United States. Because if those workers aren’t heard, the kind of workplace abuse that I suffered doesn’t just hurt guestworkers — it hurts many millions of U.S. workers too.

I was recruited to come to the United States in 2013 from a rural area in Jamaica called Trelawny. An American company called Mister Clean wanted workers to come to Florida on H-2B guestworker visas and do housekeeping work. It was hard to imagine leaving my family and my home, but when I became a mother I realized that my life was no longer about me. I decided to take the chance to make a better life for my family.

About 100 other Jamaican workers were brought with me. We had to go into debt of more than $2,000 U.S. dollars each to pay fees and travel costs. When we arrived, Mister Clean made us live in company housing. They put 13 of us in a two-bedroom apartment with no beds, no furniture at all, and made each of us pay $375 per month. Together we were paying nearly $5,000 dollars to sleep on the floor. I knew in my heart that this was unacceptable, but I had come with a goal to work for my children, so I stayed quiet.

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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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