Posts Tagged ‘walmart’

24-Hour Shifts and Deportation Threats: The World of US Guest Workers – Mother Jones – 4/25/13

24-Hour Shifts and Deportation Threats: The World of US Guest Workers
Mother Jones

Adam Serwer
April 25, 2013

The recruiter promised Ana Rosa Diaz three things before she came to the United States from Mexico to work for CJ’s Seafood: She’d be peeling crab, she’d be making $8.53 an hour, and she’d be working for six months out of the year.

Instead, Diaz ended up peeling crawfish in a cramped room with about 40 other workers until her nails were torn off, was paid by the pound instead of the hour with no overtime, and was sent home after only about five months. Even so, she was desperate. The money wasn’t what she was promised, but it was good enough that she talked a friend, Martha Uvalle, into joining her a few years after she first left for Louisiana in 2003. Diaz and Uvalle both had families to think of—Diaz has four children and Uvalle has five. So every year, they’d relocate to Louisiana and live in a trailer park for five months, peeling crawfish from five in the morning until three in the afternoon six days a week until they were sent home.

Diaz and Uvalle were temporary guest workers—a term that in the United States encompasses an alphabet soup of government visas that provide firms with access to foreign labor. Immigration reform advocates see the fate of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States as the great moral question of comprehensive immigration reform. But the thornier policy question, at least from the point of view of those who want to prevent another wave of illegal immigration to the United States, is how to meet the domestic demand for foreign labor legally while preventing those workers from being exploited.

“The reason we have 11 million unauthorized people living in America is that we have jobs for them to do but no legal way for them to get here,” says Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a right-leaning pro-immigration group. “Americans get that they don’t want their kids to cut lettuce, but they don’t want their kids to clean bedpans either.”

Many policy experts say the 1986 immigration reform bill failed to prevent the illegal immigration wave of the 1990s because it didn’t adequately account for the demand for foreign labor. If this year’s immigration reform bill lacks an effective program to channel that demand, they argue, the undocumented population will balloon again.

“If we want to have a different picture for the future, then its very much in our best interest to figure out a way for people to come legally,” says Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and current director of the Migration Policy Institute.

That’s harder than it sounds. More than a year and a half ago, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Thomas Donohue, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, America’s big business lobby, and Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation, to try to work out a deal on guest workers that would be acceptable to both unions and business interests. Staff experts from both sides then worked on a potential deal in advance of the current immigration reform push.

It’s an article of faith on the right that the battle over the guest worker program in 2007 helped doom George W. Bush’s immigration bill, even though a grassroots rebellion over legalization is the more likely factor. Republicans and their allies in business have often argued that immigration reform without a guest worker program cannot pass Congress. But Republicans also fear that reform will hand Democrats millions of new voters, and it’s unclear whether big business, which wants a guest worker program, can convince skeptical GOPers to back a deal. “Do I think business actually delivers votes in Congress based on this?” says a longtime labor activist who lobbied on behalf of the 2007 bill. “I think that’s very abstract and theoretical.”

Businesses want cheap workers, and unions need new members. But they have argued for decades about how best to bring immigrant workers into the United States legally, with few clear answers and several shameful experiments. Past guest worker solutions, such as the mid-century Bracero program—which brought in Mexican agricultural workers to labor under abysmal conditions and for exploitative wages—remain powerful symbols of how such efforts can go horribly wrong. Still, both sides agree the current laws aren’t working.

“The current guest worker program is just as broken as the current immigration system,” says Eliseo Medina, treasurer for the Service Employees International Union, whose father and brother were brought to the US from Mexico to labor in American fields. “I have a first-hand familial experience with how these programs don’t work. They’re abusive and exploitative, that’s why I think from that experience, we need to do something different.”

The problem is in the nature of the concept: Guest workers often don’t want to be “guests”; they want to live and work here, and often overstay their visas. Employers can easily use guest workers’ immigration status to exploit them, and their visas are often tied to their employer, so they can’t simply seek work elsewhere. Nevertheless, there are jobs Americans don’t really want to do, and they end up being filled by immigrants one way or another.

That’s how Diaz and Uvalle ended up peeling crawfish in the cramped room in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Crawfish are small, and repeating the same motion for 15 or 16 hours makes workers’ fingers, arms, and hands ache. Workers would occasionally cut their hands while peeling and get infected by a fungus that crawfish sometimes carry. If the guest workers wanted gloves, they had to buy them from a vendor who came by the trailers to sell them odds and ends.

Diaz and Uvalle put up with the tough hours, austere conditions, and broken promises because they needed the money, they said through an interpreter. But beginning sometime in 2009, the work became unbearable. CJ’s Seafood had won a contract with Walmart, and the hours started getting longer. Instead of starting at 5 a.m., they’d start at 4, and then 3, until eventually the guest workers were shuffling out of their trailers at 2 a.m. to unload, peel, boil, and pack the crawfish so they could be shipped out. Instead of stopping at 3 p.m. like they used to, they’d work until 5. Some of the workers, Diaz and Uvalle said, would work for 24 hours or more, all without overtime pay. The trailers themselves had been modified with bunk beds to fit more people. The few American workers at CJ’s Seafood had more freedom—they didn’t have to live in the trailers, and they were allowed to take longer breaks and leave to do things like pick up their children from school. According to Diaz and Uvalle, management started pitting the workers against each other, berating those who didn’t peel fast enough.

One morning in May 2012, just as the shift was starting, Mike LeBlanc, the manager, pulled the guest workers into a meeting and told the few American workers to stay outside. They weren’t working hard enough, he said, and they needed to pick up the pace. If they weren’t happy with the conditions, he said, they could go back to Mexico—after all, there were always more workers there to be found.

But LeBlanc didn’t stop there, according to Diaz and Uvalle. They say LeBlanc told the workers that they could be friends, but that they didn’t want him as an enemy, because he knew good people and bad people—and he knew where all of the workers’ families lived. Doris, LeBlanc’s wife, was translating into Spanish; after LeBlanc finished talking, Uvalle says, Doris angrily added, “You get it? You understand?”

Shortly after that meeting, an alarmed Diaz and Uvalle decided to contact Jacob Horwitz, an organizer with the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), an advocacy group for foreign workers. They had been in touch with Horwitz since March, having been given his number a year earlier by the vendor who occasionally sold goods at the trailers. For months, Diaz and Uvalle had been quietly sneaking out of the camp at night to meet secretly with Horwitz in parking lots and hotel rooms, telling their supervisors they were going shopping at Walmart.

According to Horwitz, LeBlanc’s threat “made it really clear that this was a forced-labor situation.” Diaz and Uvalle decided to try to organize a strike to force LeBlanc and CJ’s Seafood to allow them decent hours and pay them what they were owed.

They didn’t find many takers. Of the approximately 40 guest workers at CJ’s Seafood, only 8 wanted in, 3 of whom were Uvalle’s relatives—an aunt, an uncle, and a nephew. Several workers told Diaz that they were afraid to be sent back to Mexico; others said they should be grateful to LeBlanc for having jobs at all.

Diaz and Uvalle went ahead with the strike anyway, refusing to work until LeBlanc withdrew what he said at the meeting, agreed to regular hours, overtime pay, and more breaks. They also contacted the Department of Labor. LeBlanc rejected their demands and told them to pick up their last paycheck in the morning. When Diaz and Uvalle showed up, LeBlanc had series of papers for them to sign. He told the striking workers he had already called the police—Diaz and Uvalle said that they understood if they signed the papers they’d have no legal status, and they’d simply be deported. LeBlanc told them to grab their belongings and get off his property within twenty minutes.

Diaz and Uvalle left, but they weren’t done. Over the next few weeks they met with other workers on the Walmart supply chain and staged a series of protests with the NGA, one at the Walmart in New Orleans and another at the home of Michelle Burns, a prominent Democrat and Walmart executive. The strike garnered some press, enough to force Walmart to respond. A couple of days after the strike, the company told the Daily Beast, “Following our investigation, as well as investigations by the Department of Labor and OSHA, at this time we are unable to substantiate claims of forced labor or human trafficking at CJ’s Seafood.” Mother Jones was hung up on twice when it tried to contact CJ’s Seafood for comment.

Walmart dropped CJ’s Seafood as a supplier in late June, just three weeks after the strike. What the Walmart spokesman had told the Daily Beast wasn’t true—the Department of Labor investigation wasn’t finished. When the investigation concluded in late July 2012, more than a month after the strike, CJ’s was fined more than $34,000 for safety violations and ordered to pay $214,000 for violations of wage and hour rules—including $76,000 in back pay to its workers. Diaz and Uvalle had made CJ’s pay for treating them poorly, but they hadn’t managed to force the company to treat its other workers any better.

Diaz and Uvalle didn’t return to work at CJ’s. As witnesses to labor abuse they were able to acquire U visas, which are granted to immigrants who cooperate with law enforcement investigations. But their experience illustrates how under the current program, guest workers’ tenuous legal status means they have little if any leverage over their employers, who can simply hire more, less-troublesome foreign workers and send the others home.

The bipartisan Senate Gang of Eight thinks they’ve solved that problem. Crafted with the input of business and labor, their plan introduces a new visa program for nonagricultural workers called the W visa, which, unlike the current H-2B visa, won’t tie the workers to a single employer and will allow them to eventually apply for citizenship. That’s supposed to prevent employers from taking advantage of workers: If workers don’t like one job, they could apply for another similar one. But W visa workers would have to find a job quickly—within two months—or risk losing their status.

Business also has agreed to a program that starts at 20,000 W visas and can grow to a maximum of 200,000 based on a statistical formula (PDF) and a panel that oversees the program, something labor wanted to prevent foreign workers from getting too much of an advantage over American ones. The number of visas available every year will be based on recommendations from a new body known as the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research.

Some on the business side, however, think the cap on the number of W visas is a nonstarter. “Between 2003 and 2009, more than 350,000 people came, and in some years more than 600,000 people came illegally to work because we needed them to work,” says Jacoby, who was one of the negotiators on behalf of big business. “How can 20,000 [W visas] accommodate that flow?”

While the W visa undoubtedly has more protections for foreign workers than the H-2B visa, it won’t be replacing it. Up to 66,000 H-2B workers will be allowed in every year. Returning guest workers will be exempt from the cap for at least five years. That means, at least at first, the H-2B program—under which Diaz and Uvalle say they were exploited for years by an abusive employer—will be far larger than the new program that gives workers more protections. While legislators expect the W visa will appeal to employers who want more skilled workers and don’t want to retrain new ones, there’s nothing in the bill itself that keeps employers from choosing the H-2B instead of the W visa. The bill improves the way wages are set in the H-2B program, and like W visa workers, H-2B workers will be able to accrue points toward a green card under the new bill. The temporary nature of the H-2B program makes their path to citizenship a longer, more winding road.

Jennifer Rosenbaum, legal director at the National Guestworker Alliance, says that since the bill would legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants, she doesn’t see the need for a guest worker program. “It doesn’t make any sense except that they want a captive workforce—they don’t just want workers,” Rosenbaum says.

Any foreign-worker program will have to meet demand while protecting the rights of workers, and it won’t be easy for any program to do either, let alone both. In February 2013, while business and labor were hammering out their compromise, Diaz and Uvalle traveled to Arkansas to meet with Walmart executives, who assured them they were taking action to ensure their suppliers were meeting Walmart labor standards, particularly with regard to forced labor.

Kory Lundberg, a spokesperson for Walmart, told Mother Jones that the company has developed an audit system in which a third party will evaluate whether Walmart suppliers are meeting their labor standards. Lundberg wouldn’t say that it was in response to the events at CJ’s Seafood, but he acknowledged that Walmart began developing the audit program after the strike and investigation. “It’s important to us that all the workers in our supply chain are treated with dignity and respect,” Lundberg said.

In the February meeting Diaz and Uvalle say Walmart refused to put any kind of agreement in writing with the guest workers employed by their contractors. Both of them say they don’t trust Walmart to police itself, and that they think other workers on the Walmart supply chain will still be subject to similar abuse.

Since the strike, Diaz and Uvalle, longtime friends, have pursued different paths. They have both remained a part of the NGA’s campaign on behalf of workers on the Walmart supply chain, but after working as a domestic worker, cleaning homes, and taking care of children, Uvalle has decided to leave Louisiana for Texas. Diaz is working as a supervisor at a plant that supplies eggs to supermarkets.

She still doesn’t get paid overtime.

Bangladesh Tragedy Shows Walmart Failures on Worker Safety – 4/25/13

Bangladesh Tragedy Shows Walmart Failures on Worker Safety

Supply chain workers renew call on Walmart to adopt worker safety agreement

April 24, 2013—Today’s horrific garment factory collapse in Bangladesh shows the need for Walmart to commit to real safety and workers’ rights standards for all the workers who produce and deliver the commodities sold on Walmart’s shelves everyday, said US Walmart supply chain workers Wednesday. Workers from National Guestworker Alliance, Warehouse Workers United, New Labor, Warehouse Workers for Justice and Jobs with Justice who recently meet in Los Angeles and demanded Walmart commit to protecting workers on their supply chain in a set of core principles denounced the negligence that contributed to today’s tragedy.

The collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building, which housed five garment factories, reportedly killed at least 80 people and injured over 800. It came just six months after a deadly fire at another Bangladesh garment factory that supplied to Walmart killed 112 people. Walmart has played a led role in blocking stricter safety standards at Bangladesh garment factories, citing high costs, according to the New York Times.

Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker who directs the Bangladesh Center for Worker Safety and attended the meeting in Los Angles earlier this month, said:

“These tragedies can be prevented by multinational corporations like Walmart and the Gap that operate in Bangladesh. Because of these companies’ negligence and willful ignorance, garment workers are in danger every day because of the unsafe working conditions.”

The US Walmart supply chain workers renewed their call for the megaretailer to agree to supplier standards that enforceable, credible, and include workers’ voice to ensure safety and dignity across Walmart’s global supply chain.

Elizabeth Brennan,  213-999-2164

‘I Jumped to Save My Body’: Walmart Slammed Over Nicaragua Stabbings and Bangladesh Fire – The Nation – 4/18/13

‘I Jumped to Save My Body’: Walmart Slammed Over Nicaragua Stabbings and Bangladesh Fire
The Nation

Josh Eidelson
April 18, 2013

Survivors of a factory fire in Bangladesh and an armed assault in Nicaragua both called this week for Walmart to crack down on abuses in its global supply chain. Former garment worker Sumi Abedin, who jumped from a third story window to escape Bangladesh’s Tazreen factory, will lead a mock “funeral procession” tonight to the New York City home of Walmart board member Michele Burns. Tomorrow, students and other supporters will converge on the New York and Los Angeles offices of SAE-A, a Walmart contractor accused of fomenting violence against union activists.

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on either case.

Stabbings and Beatings in Nicaragua

“We’re making their clothes, the clothes they’re going to sell,” fired Nicaraguan factory worker Darwing Lopez-Alanez told The Nation in Spanish. “And so they have a role in what goes on inside there.” Lopez-Alanez, the secretary-general of a new union seeking recognition, was one of fifteen union leaders fired at two factories owned and operated by SAE-A, an apparel company based in South Korea.

In a March memo to Walmart and other US brands, the labor monitoring group Workers Rights Consortiumwrote that its preliminary investigation “finds that SAE-A brutally violated these workers’ associational rights by directing and paying a mob of more than 300 other workers—while on paid company time—to attack these employees with scissors and metal pipes.”

Lopez-Alanez said that he began organizing with his co-workers in hopes of confronting excessive workload and mistreatment by management. “I had seen it all,” he told The Nation. Because the recognized union in the factory always sided with management, said Lopez-Alanez, he and a group of co-workers began trying to organize a new one.

On March 4, the conflict turned violent. Lopez-Alanez and other fired workers showed up with leaflets outside his factory at 5 AM. “We planned a peaceful protest,” he said. An hour later, as some workers arrived at the factory, Lopez-Alanez and his comrades struck up conversations with them, “telling them that we needed to defend our rights, talking about the mistreatment at the factory that we were working in, the terrible conditions, that everything only seemed OK when a representative from one of the brands came.”

While the fired workers protested outside, witnesses later told the WRC, SAE-A management met with workers inside the factory and promised them bonuses and free food if they would break up the rally. Lopez-Alanez said he heard from co-workers that they were also warned that if the union campaign took hold, all of them could lose their jobs. According to Lopez-Alanez, as hundreds of those workers came back out of the factory, one of the fired workers reiterated over a bullhorn that the protest was peaceful. But “then this group came towards us and started beating us. The private security told us to stop making noise.” “I was scared,” said Lopez-Alanez, who came to the rally with his wife, a fellow fired union activist. “They fractured my leg with a pipe.”

With support from Warehouse Workers United, a project of the US union federation Change to Win, SAE-A union activists are demanding Walmart get the contractor to reinstate the fired workers and bargain with the new unions. In a Wednesday e-mail, WRC Executive Director Scott Nova told The Nation that while Walmart had not addressed his group’s letter, SAE-A “has responded and has provided information we have requested as part of our ongoing investigation.” Nova added, “We hope they will be willing to take action to address the problems at the factory.”

“What they want is to intimidate us so we don’t keep up the struggle,” said Lopez-Alanez. “A union that fought for the rights of the workers, they’re worried that would affect their profits.”

The SAE-A showdown comes as Walmart faces increased scrutiny over conditions in its domestic and international supply chains. In a November interview with The Nation, following the deaths of 112 workers in a Bangladesh factory, the WRC’s Nova accused Walmart of “setting up these contracting regimes in which you can get individual, poorly regulated businesses to compete viciously with each other for your business” by forcing down labor costs. “And then you let them go out and find new and creative ways to fuck workers and break the law,” he said. “And then you distance yourself from it, and say, ‘Oh this is so terrible…if you get caught. And of course in most cases, you don’t get caught.”

Fire Safety Deal Rebuffed in Bangladesh

On Monday, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that, unlike some brands, Walmart and Sears “didn’t respond to an invitation” to attend a meeting regarding compensation for the victims of November’s deadly factory fire at Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory. Interviewed yesterday (in Bangla), Tazreen survivor Sumi Abedin charged that by blowing off the meeting, “Walmart has insulted all those workers who died in this fire and who were injured, as well as survivors…. By not participating in this meeting, ultimately they are supporting their death.”

As The Nation has reported, the factory was producing Walmart apparel at the time of the fire; the company has blamed this on a rogue supplier. In December, Bloomberg and The New York Times reported that Walmart shot down a plan proposed in 2011 under which major brands would have paid for the costs of safety improvements in the Bangladesh factories producing their products. In a statement e-mailed toBloomberg, a Walmart spokesperson said that the company “has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers.”

Abedin told The Nation that prior to the November fire, “many times we complained to the factory manager and said that it was unsafe. But he would always reply, ‘There will be no accident. If there is an accident, I will manage it.’”

When the November fire broke out, Abedin was working on the factory’s fourth floor. When a co-worker smelled smoke and she and some co-workers first tried to escape, said Abedin, managers “shouted at us, ‘There is no fire. This is a lie. Go and work.’” Five minutes later, when the smell had grown stronger, Abedin ran to a door but it was padlocked shut. “I was crying and running around the floors,” she said. Abedin took a different stairway down to the second floor, but found fire blocking any exit there. “Meanwhile,” she said, “power had gone out, and it was dark.” Following co-workers who were lighting the way with a cell phone, she made it back up to the third floor. “I saw many workers fallen in the production area,” she said, “and they had suffocated, and I was crying.”

A few workers forced open a window, and Abedin jumped out. “I jumped not to save my life,” she said. “I jumped to save my body. Because if I would be in the factory, my parents would not be able to get my body. I would be burned to death. So I jumped so at least they could find my body outside.”

Abedin said she woke up outside with a broken leg and a broken arm. When she turned to help the co-worker who had jumped just before her, he was dead. A doctor has told her not to return to work for a year. “I lost many of my co-workers and friends,” Abedin told The Nation.

“Walmart has a lot of responsibility,” Abedin said. “They knew about these working conditions.” Kalpona Akter, a leader of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity who’s traveling the United States with Abedin, said that Bangladesh is attractive to Walmart in part because of the brutal suppression of union organizing efforts in the country. “Whenever workers try to organize themselves, they’ve been threatened, beaten and falsely [criminally] charged, and Walmart knew that,” Akter told The Nation. “Me and my colleagues have been charged for nine different criminal charges, and four of them have been filed by Walmart-sourcing factories. And Walmart knew that.”

The International Labor Rights Forum, one of the groups coordinating Abedin and Akter’s US visit, has joined BCWS in calling for Walmart to join two corporations which have signed a fire safety memorandum of understanding that would require them—once at least four companies have signed on—to pay for the costs of safety improvements in the Bangladesh factories where their apparel is made, and to support protections for union organizing there. Bloomberg reported that Walmart will donate $1.6 million “to establish an entity called the Environment, Health and Safety Academy in Bangladesh.” ILRF Executive Director Judy Gearhart told The Nation that Walmart’s donation isn’t good enough: “They want to dedicate $1.6 million to training as opposed to really accepting full accountability for the workers in their supply chain.”

Organizing Across the Supply Chain

Abedin and Akter’s trip included a stop in Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas, hometown last week, where they unsuccessfully sought meetings with Walmart executives at company headquarters and at the home of one of its vice presidents. The Bangladeshi activists have also been targeting other brands that have sourced goods from factories where workers died in fires; yesterday they were escorted out of a Gap location in New York’s Herald Square.

Prior to the mock funeral procession, this evening Abedin will join a panel of Walmart supply chain workers, including an employee of a New Jersey pharmaceutical supplier. Last week, she gathered in Southern California with worker activists from Walmart US distribution centers and the now-suspended seafood supplier CJ’s Seafood. At that meeting, workers released a set of “Core Principles” for Walmart supply chain reform, including a fire safety agreement in Bangladesh; stronger immigrant organizing rights protections in the US; and warehouse standards “that are enforceable, credible, and involve workers in a meaningful way.”

Ana Rosa Diaz, one of eight immigrant guest workers to strike last year over alleged forced labor at CJ’s, told The Nation in Spanish that she saw unity throughout the supply chain at a key step in challenging the Walmart business model. “Hopefully,” said Diaz, “other workers who work in these conditions feel motivated that they are not alone, and that they should come forward and be part of this effort.”

BCWS’ Akter said that meeting other Walmart supply chain workers had been eye-opening. “I knew that Walmart doesn’t care” about the rights of “workers that they’re sourcing from,” she told The Nation. But “I thought the workers that work in their stores, they’d be treating well, maybe paying well. But that really surprised me, to know that they are just on the bottom…. They are the same everywhere.”

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.


Contacts: Elizabeth Brennan at 213-999-2164


Guest Workers As Bellwether – Dissent – 4/1/13

Guest Workers As Bellwether
Dissent Magazine

Josh Eidelson
April 1, 2013

By the time Martha Uvalle’s boss threatened to have her children assaulted, she’d already lowered her expectations. Uvalle, a forty-year-old from Tamalipas, Mexico, has come to Louisiana as a guest worker every year since 2006. “I came to fulfill the American Dream,” Uvalle told me with a laugh in November. Her choice to become a guest worker was “difficult, because you know you’re leaving your children.” But given “the chance to make a little money . . . you decide the sacrifice is worth it.” Each year, Uvalle worked for two to five months for CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana, supplying shrimp to companies including the retail giant Wal-Mart. “You have the costs here, the costs there, the costs to come here, so you really can’t save any money.” She also took out high-interest loans to pay for the costs of the travel. Still, “it’s more than you can make in Mexico. But it’s not what I was expecting.” (Interviews with Uvalle and other guest workers were conducted in Spanish.)

For years, the hours at CJ’s were long, and the work was hard. Then, in 2011, Mike LeBlanc replaced his father as the head of the company. “That,” said CJ’s worker Ana Rosa Diaz, “was when it started to get out of control.” Workers say they were required to come to work earlier and stay later, sometimes working as many as sixteen to twenty-four hours straight. Management installed security cameras in the plant and also around the company-owned trailers where the workers lived. Workers say management imposed a curfew, threatened to confiscate the keys to their cars, and told them they couldn’t have visitors. Worse, one of the managers repeatedly said, “If you don’t understand that your break is over, I’ll make you understand with this shovel.” Uvalle understood: “He was saying he would beat us.”

The worst day at CJ’s, Uvalle remembered, was “the day of the threat.” It came after LeBlanc heard that a worker had attempted to report him to the police. Workers say they were called into a mandatory meeting where LeBlanc told them that if any of them got him in trouble, he wouldn’t just get them deported forever. He would send armed men to assault their families back in Mexico.

“I came here to make a better quality of life for myself and my kids, not to get threatened—and especially not to get my children threatened,” said Uvalle.

Last summer, the Worker Rights Consortium, an international labor monitoring group, investigated and affirmed the workers’ allegations of forced labor. WRC executive director Scott Nova told me that although the group generally investigates conditions outside the United States, what he found at CJ’s were among the worst he’s ever seen. But they’re not a fluke. Saket Soni, the executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, called such abuses “the norm, rather than the exception.” Guest workers face a system designed not just to press down wages but to stifle resistance.

Guest labor has long been a linchpin for some U.S. industries, and a flashpoint in U.S. politics. Most famously, the bracero program, begun by bilateral agreement between the United States and Mexico, facilitated over 4 million total trips by Mexican temporary workers to the United States; it was abolished in 1964 amid criticism from civil rights activists. As pseudo-stateless workers, guest workers face all of the obstacles confronting any U.S. workers who try to organize, and then some.

What set the CJ’s workers apart, more than the abuses they suffered, is how some of them responded: against all odds, they went on strike.

The CJ’s workers are among hundreds of thousands of guest workers who come to the United States each year. These workers range from Mexicans shelling shrimp in a border state on guest worker visas to the group of Turkish and Chinese students, brought to the United States for a “cultural exchange,” who found themselves laboring in a Hershey’s chocolate factory in rural Pennsylvania. NGA, which helped organize strikes at both CJ’s and the Hershey Company, says such showdowns will help shape the future of work in the United States.

“Employers for a century have been trying to import workers who have something less than full citizenship,” says historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara. From a management perspective, he said, “They’re the perfect workers.”

NGA, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, is one of hundreds of non-union labor groups organizing workers who’ve been betrayed by New Deal labor laws. It shares a tax filing and a house-turned-office with another of the Workers’ Center’s projects, a group organizing homeless New Orleans locals and public housing tenants. Like other alternative labor groups, it depends on foundation funding for most of its budget.

As is the case with domestic workers, guest workers are too often invisible in popular discussions of work; when they appear, it’s as outliers. But Soni, who founded the NGA amid the city’s post-Katrina guest worker influx, says they’re better understood as a bellwether. “You can see what work will look like unless there’s strong intervention by people like us.”
That’s because these workers represent what’s happening to U.S. work in three critical ways. First, precarity: Workers lack job security, formal contracts, or guaranteed hours. Second, legal exclusion: Labeled as “independent contractors,” “domestic workers” or otherwise, they’re thrust beyond the reach of this country’s creaky, craven labor laws. And third, the mystification of employment: While a no-name contracted company signs your paycheck, your conditions are set by a major corporation with far away headquarters and legal impunity. These linked trends are both causes and consequences of the ongoing de-unionization of the United States.

These trends burst into public view at that Hershey’s factory in 2011, when student workers from several countries staged a sit-in and walkout. Lured by the promise of a cultural exchange, the students alleged, they’d unwittingly been used as replacements on unionized, good-paying jobs. The striking workers marched through Hershey, a company town where lampposts are in the shape of the iconic Hershey kisses, chanting in several languages and dancing to hip-hop music from home.

Those workers won the support of local organized labor, and scrutiny from national media. They directed their demands not at their legal employer, but up the supply chain. Like the CJ’s workers, they used industrial action and a comprehensive campaign to hold their “real boss” accountable for their conditions. For the Pennsylvania workers, that was the Hershey Company, which was insulated from them by five layers of sub-contracting. For workers at CJ’s and many other unknown companies, it’s Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Mart is the one who provokes all of this,” says CJ’s striker Diaz, “because they want to get everything the cheapest, and sell it the cheapest. They’re the one really stepping on us.” NGA’s lead organizer Jacob Horwitz added that, while LeBlanc was no good guy, it may not be possible to follow the law and keep a Wal-Mart contract.

Wal-Mart initially told reporters that it had investigated the CJ’s workers’ allegations, and couldn’t find evidence to substantiate them. But the company eventually announced it had suspended CJ’s as a supplier—weeks after the workers went on strike.

“It’s become really, really clear to us,” said Soni, that “what’s at stake is not merely lower wages but the transformation of entire industries, and the disappearance of rights, respect, and a contract. In effect, guest workers are used to push the bottom even further down.”

Guest workers, he added, are “really predicting what the majority will look like if we don’t intervene in exactly the way that the CJ’s workers and so many workers have done in recent months.”

Few workers have an easy time organizing in the contemporary United States. Labor laws do little to restrain companies from union-busting or compel them to honor workers’ expressed wish for collective bargaining. Workers face a very real risk that their efforts to change their job will leave them without one. Employment-at-will and management-by-fiat provide companies with countless levers to reward or punish. These obstacles face workers throughout the United States, including the Walmart retail workers now staging their own rebellion. But each of these challenges is exacerbated for the country’s guest workers, for whom Wagner Act collective bargaining isn’t an option, worksites shut down at least once a year, and bosses control not just jobs but a worker’s ability to stay in the country—or ever come back.

Workers say management keeps control through the threat of “the black list”—the power to ensure that no employer brings them back to work in the United States again. In interviews with Louisiana guest workers, I heard the word impotencia (powerlessness) again and again.

“This is everyone’s fear,” said Diaz. “Are they going to bring us back next year, or not? . . . If I lose the chance to come back, what will happen to my children, to their education? How will I eat?”

At CJ’s, Diaz and Uvalle said that LeBlanc’s threat to have their families assaulted drove some workers even further into fear. But it drove a few of them to take action. Uvalle and Diaz got Horwitz’s phone number from a guest worker at a different shrimp company, summoned the courage to call him, and began meeting in secret. Because management monitored their outside-work activities, they had to come up with excuses for where they were going. Horwitz said their meetings would frequently be interrupted by cell phone calls from the boss’s wife, checking up on their whereabouts; Diaz would say that they were shopping, and running late.

Eventually, Uvalle and Diaz decided to test the waters among a few co-workers they knew well, who they thought might be sympathetic. When they were satisfied that these co-workers were sufficiently worked up, they announced that they were driving straight to a meeting with the NGA.

The CJ’s workers settled on a plan to approach their boss as a group with a list of modest demands: providing a full lunch break, turning off some of the cameras, and firing the supervisor who kept threatening to beat them with shovels.

LeBlanc rebuffed them, and they told him they were on strike. “He didn’t believe it,” said Uvalle. “He couldn’t get it into his head. He said you have to go back to work . . . . And we said no.” They went through the plant asking co-workers to join them. None did; instead, two of the workers who’d been involved got cold feet. That left eight workers on strike. “Everyone was too afraid,” said Uvalle. “They thought we were crazy.”

Those eight workers did not shut down their workplace, as strikers used to (and sometimes still do). They didn’t win collective bargaining with their employer, as the law claims (most) workers can. But they did draw national media attention to CJ’s, and to Wal-Mart. Workers held simultaneous hunger fasts in Mexico and outside a Wal-Mart board member’s New York City mansion. They lobbied officials from both countries’ governments. They brought in the WRC to document their allegations. Through those efforts, they shamed Wal-Mart into suspending CJ’s, built political support for legal reform, and offered a cautionary tale for employers and a cause for hope for other guest workers.

In other words, they used the kinds of comprehensive campaign tactics that have increasingly come to typify successful labor struggles in the United States: a blend of workplace activism and media, consumer, legal, and political pressure. Such tactics characterize the growing array of groups organizing workers excluded from union recognition, from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to the National Taxi Workers Alliance. But these tactics have also become a necessary component of successful union struggles, from fast food workers’ attempt to win a union to the efforts of union members at American Crystal Sugar to end the twenty-month lockout by their employer.

“Having workers on strike is the strongest leverage,” says Soni. “Given the level of abuse and the level of motivation among workers, it is absolutely going to happen that the NGA is going to force the marketing boards, the industry boards of these industries to bargain and to negotiate with the workers. And in turn, we will also be forcing them to get Wal-Mart to the table.” He added that changing the “totality of circumstances” will require negotiating with the U.S. and Mexican governments as well.

Rather than just bargaining with the person who signs their paycheck, says Soni, workers “want to bargain with the actual beneficiary of their labor, which is often Wal-Mart.” They’re making progress. At Wal-Mart’s request, Uvalle, Diaz, and NGA staff met face-to-face with the retail giant in February. In the meeting, “Wal-Mart presented a project of trying to educate suppliers,” said Uvalle, “but it’s not enough.” Soni said that while the meeting was “very powerful,” it also showed the “enormous gulf of understanding” between Wal-Mart and the workers. At one point, Soni recalled, a Wal-Mart official touted a proposed app that would allow workers to report human trafficking from their smart phones. According to Soni, Diaz “responded that it sounds great, but frankly she wasn’t even getting a cell phone signal in that labor camp she was trapped in.”

What will come of that meeting remains to be seen. In recent years, Wal-Mart has proven itself more willing to spend money in order to mollify critics than to concede power. If a concession “doesn’t create a permanent oppositional structure within the company,” said Lichtenstein, “they’ll entertain the idea of accommodating it.”

At a daunting moment for U.S. labor, NGA organizers say that the organizing victories of “deportable” workers—partial though they may be—offer hope, and a challenge to complacency. But there’s a difficult road ahead.

Addressing the deportation threat is the first and most critical step in increasing guest workers’ leverage. “What scares us the most is the black list,” said Diaz. “That’s what makes us the bosses’ subjects.”

“We’ve realized most bosses use the same tactics,” said Uvalle. “They say, ‘I brought you here. You depend on my visa. I’ll send you back to Mexico. I’ll report you to immigration. You’ll never come back.’” If workers knew that their job was secure from one year to the next, or that they could leave an abusive U.S. employer for a better one, said Diaz, that would make a tremendous difference.

Eliminating the black list would rob employers of one of their most powerful weapons for ensuring workers’ compliance. But accomplishing such a change will require significant leverage. Given the high costs of transporting workers across the border and securing visas—costs often borne in part by employers—Horwitz argues that companies are paying a heavy premium in order to secure a work force that can be compelled to work for illegally long hours and low wages.

Organizers say they’ve found strategies that are working. One is worker-to-worker organizing. After receiving rare “U visas” from the U.S. government as victims of serious crimes at CJ’s, Diaz, Uvalle, and their co-worker Victor Manuel Ramos spent several months as full-time organizers with the NGA, visiting guest workers at work and at their (often employer-owned) homes. The CJ’s activists say the workers they spoke with were often shocked—less by the conditions they endured at CJ’s than by the way they fought back.

NGA has also concluded that guest worker organizing won’t succeed if it remains bound within the United States. Given the shortness of the season and the obstacles to organizing, said Diaz, it would make a huge difference if workers arrived in the United States already prepared to assert their rights. That’s a difficult task, but not an impossible one. Many guest workers often come from the same towns in their home countries, where they’ve been recruited by the same company agents, and return to the same job each year. But the presence of recruiters in the community means that many workers back in Mexico, though separated by a border from the workplace, still contend with fear of surveillance by management. Workers say they hold their meetings in secret to avoid blacklisting of the participants.

NGA has teamed up with ProDESC, the Mexico-based human rights organization. ProDESC organizer Valeria Scorza says Mexican workers’ migration isn’t an accident—rather, it’s a predictable consequence of the migration of capital that was hastened by NAFTA. Lichtenstein says the trade pact “helped further destroy the peasant economy of Mexico in a rapid fashion.” As U.S. agricultural products “flooded the Mexican market,” he added, workers “rushed to migrate.”

But while employers traverse borders with relative ease, workers’ movements are heavily regulated (their wages are a different story). “If companies can erase borders,” says Soni, “then workers should be able to as well. And that’s exactly what they’re setting out to do.”

As Horwitz and I drove between guest workers’ homes in Louisiana, he told me that roughly 90 percent of the workers he meets are too scared to have anything to do with NGA. Employers’ leverage, and the short work seasons, mean that victories are often partial or ambiguous. Outside New Orleans, we met Laura Sanchez (not her real name), a guest worker at Viet Foods. She lives in a small room in a small building adjacent to the plant. There’s barbed wire over the fence. By the time I visited in November, the season was winding down, and most of the workers had left. The 2012 season was Sanchez’s first as a guest worker, and it had been a “horrible disappointment.” As soon as she arrived, she had to borrow money from her new boss for basic necessities for the building where she shared a room with three other workers. The work, shelling crawfish at a fast pace, made her fingers bleed. Sanchez said her boss “would say we were lazy and we were slow.” If he saw that one of the women had gotten a ride to work, he would accuse her of sleeping around.

Overtime hours were unpaid. But most weeks, her biggest complaint was that the hours were scant. When workers asked about getting hours at another job, the boss threatened to report them to immigration. When we met, Sanchez was preparing to return to Mexico, where she’ll work for several months selling tamales. She showed me her most recent paycheck. After some (though not all) of her expenses had been deducted, she had made $5,282 in nine months. But she owed her boss more than $3,000, leaving less than $2,000 for eight months of work. “I’m barely making enough to pay for my ticket back,” she said. Still, given the limited opportunities in Mexico, she’ll be back this year.

The 2012 season had almost ended before the workers agreed to call the NGA. “Everyone would say yes we should, but then when the moment came, no one would.” When Diaz and Uvalle came to meet the Viet Foods workers, said Sanchez, “they explained to us how they’d gone through the same thing. We started to feel encouraged. . . .We really admired them. We thought if they can do it, so can we.” After some meetings, Sanchez and a few of her co-workers confronted management about grievances. She said the response was mixed: her boss quietly remedied a few, and others remained the same. The day after the confrontation, said Sanchez, “It filled my heart up to see that my boss was nervous.” But although NGA says the conditions remained bad, the workers weren’t ready to take the fight any further.

Still, Sanchez says she’ll be more ready to organize when she comes back to the United States next year, though she hopes she’ll be working somewhere else. “I don’t have fear anymore,” she told me. “I only fear God.”

The next evening, Horwitz and I met with three workers from Crabs LLC, another company where the CJ’s strikers have been trying to light a spark. Workers first got in touch with NGA in 2011 about alleged wage theft and verbal abuse. Some workers walked off the job that year when their demands weren’t met, but didn’t get the traction of the CJ’s strikers, and the season ended without a resolution. In the 2012 season, workers say they were further galvanized when Crabs’ CEO Dennis Landry tricked them into signing a notarized contract, in English, agreeing to bear financial responsibility for any accidents at the plant.

Workers have repeatedly gone as a group to confront management and say they’ve won a measure of respect. In November, they filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor seeking payment of back wages. They hope that will bear fruit by 2013. “I still feel nervous,” one of the workers, Maria de Jésus Rubio, told me. “But not as much as before.”

At Crabs LLC, as at Viet, progress is slow. Rubio told me she confronted Landry about the unsanitary conditions in the trailers where they live. “I said you need to fix the trailers, or stop charging us rent.” His response, she said, was, “it will be too expensive” to fix it all, but “I’ll cover up the holes where the rats come in.”

Landry declined my request to meet. But he made his case over the phone, after asking me whether I was a federal agent. He denied having broken any laws, then lit into the government for what he called suffocating regulations that made it impossible to run a profitable business. Landry also blamed government largesse for his need to hire guest workers in the first place, saying that overly generous welfare benefits have sapped American citizens’ willingness to do hard work: “Americans are getting to the point where, ‘Why work when I can get it from the government for free?’” Landry also suggested I check to find out whether NGA was operating without a license. He said he’s looking to sell the Crabs LLC business and doesn’t plan to operate it in 2013.

Horwitz said he was skeptical that Landry was actually shutting down. But he noted that sometimes the closest NGA gets to victory is to see a scofflaw employer driven out of business, sending a message to peers and strengthening the case for systemic change in the industry. Asked later how other workers respond when NGA campaigns end with an employer being shut down, Horwitz e-mailed that “when workers take action to expose and transform conditions in a workplace, they don’t do it lightly.” While NGA members first try to negotiate with their bosses, said Horwitz, “far too often employers respond with actions that are criminal, and the government can shut them down as a result.”

While fighting for de facto collective bargaining with companies like Wal-Mart, NGA is building leverage to negotiate with the governments in Mexico and the United States. With negotiations over comprehensive immigration reform underway at press time, guest labor is now on the agenda. However, it’s too soon to tell if that will spell good news for guest workers.

NGA staff predicted last fall that Republicans would demand an expanded guest worker program as a condition for support of any bipartisan immigration deal, and that some Democrats would accede. The Republican Party of Texas recently added support for an expanded guest worker program to its platform, a move that became the centerpiece of a Politico article touting the state party as a model for how Republicans can win over Latino voters and shed their anti-immigrant image. If the number of guest worker visas grows, and their lack of labor protections remains, says Uvalle, “the problems are going to continue forward. But also, if that happens, the fight will continue forward.”

Senate negotiators reportedly charged organized labor and big business with formulating a compromise on guest labor for inclusion in a comprehensive bill. In a February 21 statement, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donahue announced that they had reached “common ground in several important areas.” The Los Angeles Times reported that the outline agreed to by the AFL-CIO and the Chamber included a new visa system, some form of protection for guest workers, and a new federal bureau that would advise Congress on how many guest workers to allow at a time. Trumka and Donahue wrote that labor and business had reached “the middle—not the end—of this process.”

When it comes to protecting guest workers’ rights as part of immigration reform, “I think labor is more united than it’s ever been,” Rutgers professor Janice Fine said in February. In contrast, said Fine, during the failed effort to pass immigration reform in 2007, major unions were divided over whether it was worth making the “devil’s bargain” of expanding abusive guest worker programs in order to win citizenship for undocumented workers. But Fine warned that it was too soon to tell, even if a deal was reached between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber, whether major businesses and business-backed Republicans would support it.

Uvalle and other guest workers traveled to Washington in February to push legislators to include labor protections in any deal. “I want them to understand what guest workers really face,” said Uvalle, “so they do their part to make it better.” Soni described the support for guest worker protections expressed by key Democrats as “a source of optimism.” However, he said, “if the Chamber of Commerce is anywhere as removed from a knowledge of the lived experience of workers, and the need for labor protections, as these Wal-Mart executives…I think there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Speaking to a labor audience in February, U.S. Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith called guest worker labor rights “the most important part of immigration reform.” Smith expressed confidence that a path to citizenship for other undocumented workers “is going to happen,” and it will spur a new wave of activism by immigrant workers. When that happens, said Smith, “all of this organizing and rising up is going to be very threatening to employers. What are they going to do? If they could, they would turn to guest workers.”

If Democrats back legislation that facilitates guest worker abuse, it won’t be the first time. Last year, following the strikes at Hershey’s and CJ’s, the federal Department of Labor announced new H2B visa regulations, backed by NGA. But industries moved quickly to defund the rules, backing budget amendments that would bar any spending for their implementation. The amendments passed not just the Republican-controlled House, but the Democratic-controlled Senate, where the industry won the support of Maryland’s prominent liberal senator Barbara Mikulski as well as usual suspects like Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu. Sometimes, Horwitz told me, it’s one step forward, two steps back.

NGA’s Soni is seeking an entirely different conversation, one he recognizes may be years away. Anyone who comes to the United States to work, he says, should have a way to remain in the country after leaving an abusive employer. Rather than being “captive labor,” said Soni, “they should be able to come with legal status, a path to citizenship, and to voting in the country that they’re working in.” Before that happens, NGA has a lot of work to do.

Donate now!

Your donation will support workers' fight to end forced labor, wage theft, and exploitation -- for guestworkers and U.S. workers alike!


Sign Up for Email Updates

Email Address: