by Michelle Chen
by Michelle Chen
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.
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?
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?
The Hill op-ed
August 8, 2015
Life as Donald Trump’s guestworker
By Saket Soni
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?
The Hill op-ed
May 11, 2015
By Saket Soni
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?
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.
On May 6, 2015, the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship held a hearing on H-2B guestworker program regulations.
Below is a statement by Jacob Horwitz, Organizing Director of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA):
We applaud the new H-2B program regulations by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These new rules—one instituting a new wage methodology and one regulating the H-2B program—are long overdue, having previously been blocked by industry and Congressional backers who put greed over basic worker dignity. The new rules help protect wages and working conditions for the 24 million U.S. workers who work alongside guestworkers in core H-2B industries like seafood processing, construction, landscaping, and hospitality.
Testimony at yesterday’s hearing shows why low-road employers are opposing the rules: they are afraid of workers standing up for their basic rights. Seafood industry representative Frank Randol suggested that guestworkers’ joining the NGA and exposing forced labor was as worrying to him as floods and hurricanes. Low-road employers in the seafood industry have consistently opposed regulations that provide basic protections for workers, and have sought to employ those least able to enforce their rights. As Mr. Randol noted in his testimony, his own business turned from Vietnamese refugees to H-2B guestworkers, and most recently, to prison labor.
As in 2012, industry lobbyists are now making tired complaints of overregulation. But the evidence shows—and the Federal Courts and GAO have agreed—that the lack of adequate regulation has harmed U.S. workers and guestworkers alike. The reality is that the current system rewards employers who abuse the H-2B program as a source of cheap, exploitable workers. Without the protections provided by these new rules, guestworkers like Olivia Guzman Garfias and Fausto Garcia Figueroa will continue to face retaliatory firing or blacklisting when they advocate for better conditions or come forward to expose abuse. Retaliation chills the ability of workers to enforce their rights, creates a race to the bottom, puts high-road employers at a competitive disadvantage, and drives down wages and conditions for all workers, including the 24 million U.S. workers who work alongside H-2B guestworkers.
The commonsense rules issued last week by the DOL and DHS provide important protections for all involved, including guestworkers, U.S. workers, and high-road employers:
These new rules are an important step in stopping the rampant forced labor and workplace abuse in the H-2B program, which the NGA has exposed on the supply chains of Walmart and other major corporations. They’re long overdue. And they should be supported by anyone who cares about the dignity of immigrant workers and the U.S. workers alongside them.
CONTACTS: Jacob Horwitz, email@example.com, 504-452-9159
Stephen Boykewich, firstname.lastname@example.org, 323-594-2347
E-2 “investor” visas are in the news with a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by E-2 workers charging severe labor abuse by their employer, including $3/hour pay.
But what are E-2 visas? How widespread is abuse? How are they connected to immigration reform?
A 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.
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.