Posts Tagged ‘forced labor’

Will immigration reform protect workers? – Reuters Op-Ed by Josh Eidelson

Will immigration reform protect workers?
Reuters

Josh Eidelson
July 17th, 2013

As House Republicans mull maiming the Senate’s immigration bill, a thousand pundits are asking what their moves will mean for future elections. Meanwhile, far from the spotlight, some courageous immigrant workers are asking whether Congress will finally disarm employers who use immigration status to silence employees. If Congress punts on immigration reform, or merely passes an industry wish list, it will have doubled-down on complicity in a little-discussed trend that’s driving down working conditions for U.S.-born and immigrant workers alike: For too many employers, immigration law is a tool to punish workers who try to organize.

The workers watching Congress include Ana Rosa Diaz, who last year was among the Mexican H-2B visa guest workers at CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana, peeling crawfish sold by Walmart. Accounts from workers and an NGO assessment suggest the CJ’s workers had ample grievances, from the manager that threatened them with a shovel, to the worms and lizards in the moldy trailers where they slept, to the swamp fungus that left sticky blisters on their fingers as they raced through shifts that could last twenty hours.

To maintain that miserable status quo, workers allege, management regularly resorted to threats. The most dramatic came in May 2012, when they say CJ’s boss Mike LeBlanc showed up at the start of their 2 a.m. shift to tell them he knew they were plotting against him, and that he knew “bad men” back in Mexico, and to remind them that — through labor recruiters there — he knew where their families lived. Then LeBlanc ticked off some names, including Diaz’s daughter. Diaz told me the threat of violence was all too clear: “I’ve never been so afraid of anybody in my life.”

Long before that speech, CJ’s workers say their managers deployed an all-too-common threat, what they call the “black list”: not just being deported back to Mexico, but being prevented by recruiters there from ever working in the United States again. “That’s what makes us the bosses’ subjects,” Diaz told me in a 2012 interview. “We’ve realized most bosses use the same tactics…” said her co-worker Martha Uvalle. “‘I’ll send you back to Mexico. I’ll report you to immigration. You’ll never come back.’” (CJ’s Seafood did not respond to various reporters’ requests for comment last year, including mine. Efforts to reach the company for comment last week were unsuccessful.)

Guest workers aren’t the only immigrants whose bosses can wield their immigration status as a weapon. Too often, employers who’ve happily gotten rich off the labor of undocumented workers develop a sudden interest in those employees’ legal status once they start speaking up. A few days after three-year subcontracted food court employee Antonio Vanegas joined a strike in the government-owned Ronald Reagan Building, he was detained by Homeland Security and placed in a four-day immigration detention. The same day that workers at Milwaukee’s Palermo’s Pizza plant presented their boss with a union petition, management presented workers with letters stating they’d need to verify their legal status. Ten days later, Palermo’s fired 75 striking workers, arguing it was just following immigration law.

For every immigrant worker that risks retaliation, there are others that choose not to, chastened by a well-founded fear that their status will be used against them. (There’s a risk of retaliationanytime U.S. workers try to exercise workplace rights, but the threat for undocumented or guest workers is particularly acute.) That vulnerability holds back the efforts of unions and other labor groups to organize and transform low-wage industries — or even to ensure employers pay minimum wage to their workers, immigrant or otherwise. It helps explain why the center of gravity in organized labor — long the site of struggles between exclusion and equality — has swung decisively in recent decades to support immigration reform. Rather than pushing to deport immigrants, unions (including my former employer) are mostly trying to organize them. The less leverage employers have over immigrants’ legal status, the more leverage immigrant and U.S.-born workers will have to wrest dollars and dignity from their bosses together.

The Senate’s immigration bill takes a few key steps to make that easier, each of which activists expect will face strong opposition in the House. The bill features a path to citizenship that organizers expect will help disarm deportation-happy bosses by allowing millions of workers to obtain secure and equal legal status. It creates a new “W visa” program with more labor protections that advocates hope will become a template to someday replace existing guest worker programs like the H-2B. And the bill includes several anti-retaliation measures designed to stem abuse: from more chances for workers who exposed crimes to get special visas or stays of deportation, to language overturning a Supreme Court decision that prevented illegally fired undocumented workers from getting back pay.

Those pro-labor provisions already come with painful sacrifices. Even before the Senate pegged it to a militarized “border surge,” that path to citizenship was long and littered with obstacles. Those include a requirement of near-continuous employment that advocates warn could still leave immigrants especially vulnerable to retaliatory firings, and an exclusion based on criminal convictions that — combined with a mandate that employers use the controversial status-checking software e-Verify — could leave some workers more vulnerable than ever. And advocates note that the H-2B program could at least temporarily more than double in size during the bill, though it would be subject to some modest new protections.

Facing a hostile House, labor officials are framing those Senate compromises as a floor for labor language in immigration reform: “There can be no further erosion of rights, and we’re protecting that as it goes to the House,” says Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s Director of Immigration and Community Action. But the Senate provisions are more likely to be treated as a ceiling. “We’ll lose all of the worker protection stuff in the House,” said a different advocate working on immigration for a union, and then “hope that reason prevails in the conference” committee tasked with reconciling Senate and House legislation.

The CJ’s Seafood story has an unusual ending: After their boss’s implied threat to their families, Diaz and seven of her co-workers mounted an against-the-odds strike. “We felt,” Diaz told me, “that if we didn’t do something to stop this, sometime in the future, it would be our children going through it.” You won’t find much such courage in Congress.

http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2013/07/17/will-immigration-reform-protect-workers/

Protect rights of immigrant whistle-blowers – CNN Op-Ed by Saket Soni

Protect rights of immigrant whistle-blowers
CNN

Saket Soni
June 25, 2013

Last week, federal immigration authorities seized more than a dozen 7-Eleven stores in New York and Virginia. Authorities charged that the stores’ franchisees “brutally exploited” more than 50 undocumented immigrant workers. The workers allegedly worked up to 100 hours a week, for as little as $3 an hour. They were forced to live in housing the employers owned and controlled, authorities said.

For many, it was a shock. An iconic American corporation was allegedly profiting from what the U.S. attorney’s office called a “modern-day plantation system.” Prosecutors are seeking $30 million in forfeiture, not only from the franchisees but also from the 7-Eleven parent corporation.

The real shock should be how common cases such as this have become.

Millions of immigrant workers are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, because employers can threaten them with retaliatory firing and deportation to silence complaints. In this context, the allegations that 7-Eleven ran a “plantation system” for 13 years sounds more plausible.

Consider: In March, workers from several nations filed federal complaints describing similar exploitation at McDonald’s restaurants in central Pennsylvania. The workers, students who had come to the United States with J-1 visas to work under the Summer Work Travel Program, reported brutal conditions, wage theft and shifts of up to 25 hours straight with no overtime pay. They said they were made to live in substandard housing owned by the employer, and faced threats of deportation when they raised concerns.

In June 2012, another group of immigrant workers alleged forced labor at a Louisiana Walmart supplier called C.J.’s Seafood. Supervisors threatened to beat them with a shovel, they said, to make them work faster, and when they spoke up, the boss allegedly threatened violence against their families.

Recent debate on the Senate floor also recalled an emblematic 2011 case of exploitation at a Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Pennsylvania. There, immigrant guest workers said in a federal complaint that they earned subminimum wage take-home pay and faced constant threats of firing and deportation.

Among the many similarities in these cases, most striking is that all four came to light because immigrant workers defied threats and blew the whistle. When they did, they stood up not just for themselves, but for U.S. workers as well.

In a recent national survey of 1,000 registered voters by CAMBIO (a coalition of pro-reform groups of which the National Guestworker Alliance is a member), 75% agreed that “if employers are allowed to get away with mistreating immigrant workers, it ends up lowering wages and hurting conditions for American workers as well.” Eighty percent agreed that “immigrant workers who blow the whistle on abusive employers are helping defend workplace standards, and should have the opportunity to stay in the U.S. to work toward citizenship.”

Right now, protections for immigrant whistle-blowers are weak. Immigration and Customs Enforcement routinely ignores a memorandum from its director, John Morton, allowing it not to pursue deportation against whistle-blowers. In New Orleans, 26 workers who helped expose exploitation in the Louisiana home elevation industry were arrested in an immigration raid in August 2011, and most are still fighting their deportations today. Across the country, workers who have been the victims of exploitation — and have come forward to stop it — are treated as disposable.

Immigration reform needs to change that. First, as the bill moves through the Senate and on to the House of Representatives, it needs to include provisions that deliver dignity at work to the more than 7 million immigrant workers in the United States — and that keep the floor from falling for the 150 million U.S.-born workers who work alongside them. A bill called the POWER Act would provide the key protections to both. It needs to be included in the immigration reform bill.

Second, immigration reform must deliver equal rights to all immigrant workers, so that unscrupulous employers can’t pick and choose the most exploitable workers to undercut the competition. All immigrant workers who come to the United States through future guest-worker programs must have strong whistle-blower protections and the right to change employers as freely as any worker on American shores.

Raising the floor for the immigrant workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy means building a stronger, more secure economy for all workers. That’s why protecting immigrant workers doesn’t just matter for immigrants. It matters for every worker in America.

 http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/25/opinion/soni-immigration-7-eleven/index.html

Martha Uvalle Guel: Blowing the Whistle on Labor Abuse

Meet Martha.

Last year she was a guestworker exposing forced labor in a Louisiana labor camp.

This year she’s on the frontlines of immigration reform.

Watch Martha’s video to see how Walmart’s low prices trapped her in forced labor—and how she blew the whistle on forced labor on the Walmart supply chain.

When whistleblowers like Martha come forward, they protect the wages and conditions of the 24 million U.S. workers alongside them in the same industries.

Stand with Martha: sign the petition to tell Congress that immigration reform must protect immigrant whistleblowers—for the sake of ALL America’s workers.

Martha Uvalle Guel: Blowing the Whistle on Labor Abuse – 5/28/13

When guestworkers like Martha Uvalle blow the whistle on abuse, they protect the wages and conditions of the 24 million U.S. workers alongside them. Tell Congress that immigration reform should protect guestworker whistleblowers — for the sake of ALL America’s workers!

 

Global Supply Chain Workers Pressure Walmart to Get Serious About Labor Conditions – 4/9/13

Global Supply Chain Workers Pressure Walmart to Get Serious About Labor Conditions

Workers Release Core Principles to Ensure Safe and Legal Working Conditions

LOS ANGELES, April 9, 2013—In an unprecedented meeting, workers from Walmart’s global supply chain gathered in Los Angeles Tuesday to release core principles (PDF) that would ensure basic labor standards in the megaretailer’s global supply chain.

The meeting included two Bangladeshi garment workers, one of whom, 24-year-old Sumi Abedin, jumped out of a burning factory that produced clothes for Walmart to save her life. The November 2012 fire killed 112 people. The New York Times reported that Walmart played the lead role in blocking increased fire safety protections at Bangladeshi garment factories the year before, claiming the cost would be too high.

Over the course of 2012, guestworkers, factory workers and warehouse workers exposed deadly, unsafe and illegal conditions inside Walmart’s contracted facilities. In response to pressure from workers’ groups, Walmart has accepted responsibility for conditions on its supply chain, but the company’s own solutions fail to uphold its basic standards and the law.

“Walmart must work with workers in each facet of its supply chain to ensure dignity and safety,” said Mike Compton, a warehouse worker from Illinois who traveled to Los Angeles for the meeting. “There is nowhere for workers to go right now – a complaint to Walmart goes into a black hole. There are so many workers laboring to make Walmart successful, the company has to engage with us to make sure working conditions are safe and legal.”

Workers across the Walmart supply chain agreed that standards must be enforceable and credible, and that workers must have a voice in the process.

“We faced brutal conditions, including threats of deportation and violence against us and our families if we complained,” said Ana Rosa Diaz, a former guestworker at Walmart supplier C.J’s Seafood in Louisiana and a member of the National Guestworker Alliance. “When we went on strike, Walmart tried to cover up the abuse. Only after hundreds of thousands of people stood up to support us, Walmart ended its contract with C.J.’s.”

Workers modeled today’s international convening and the release of their core principles as a response to Walmart’s own “Standards for Suppliers.”

“What workers have shown is that Walmart’s standards are nothing more than a sheet of paper,” said Guadalupe Palma, director of Warehouse Workers United. “Today workers have put forward a solution that would lift working standards globally and create enforceable, credible standards that are centered around workers.”

Tuesday’s meeting included workers from the National Guestworker Alliance, Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, Warehouse Workers United, New Labor, Warehouse Workers for Justice and Jobs with Justice, along with professors, community leaders and others.

DOWNLOAD CORE PRINCIPLES (PDF)

Contacts: Elizabeth Brennan at 213-999-2164
Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 718-791-9162

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