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Category: FrontPage

Protecting Undocumented Workers – LA Times – 6/24/11

Op-Ed
Legislation would expand the protection of ‘U visas’ to those who come forward to report workplace violations.

June 24, 2011 | By Harold Meyerson

Nearly every day for three years, Josue Melquisedec Diaz reported to work by going to a New Orleans street corner where contractors, subcontractors and people fixing up their places went to hire day laborers. It was there, one day in 2008, that a contractor picked him up and took him to Beaumont, Texas, just across the Louisiana line, to work on the cleanup, demolition and reconstruction projects that Beaumont was undertaking in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.

Diaz was put to work in a residential neighborhood that had been flooded. The American workers who were involved in the cleanup, he noted, had been given masks, gloves, boots and sometimes special suits to avoid infection. No such precautions were afforded Diaz and his crew of undocumented immigrant workers. “We were made to work with bare hands, picking up dead animals,” he says. “We were working in contaminated water,” tearing down and repairing washed-out homes.

Diaz told his story last week to a gathering of legislators and others in a meeting room at the U.S. Capitol, just a few doors down from the Senate chamber. He said that he and his crew asked their boss for the same safety equipment given their American counterparts. Instead, Diaz said, the boss responded by cutting the undocumented workers’ pay in half — at which point, Diaz and 11 others went on strike. Soon after, both the local police and immigration officers showed up to haul off the workers. The strikers were first taken to a local jail, then transferred to a federal immigration jail.

Fortunately, Diaz was a member of the New Orleans Congress of Day Laborers, which managed to get him and his co-workers released after four months behind bars. Since then, three of the 12 workers have been deported, one has died, and Diaz faces a deportation hearing scheduled for July 20. At least until then, he is trying to publicize the cause of workers who labor in dangerous conditions, who are compelled to work long hours for no extra pay, who get cheated altogether out of their paychecks and who have, in this nation of laws, no legal recourse.

Undocumented immigrants are just one among many groups of workers who effectively lack the on-the-job protections that most Americans take for granted. When the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a national minimum wage and overtime pay, was enacted in 1938, it excluded restaurant employees and retail, domestic and farm workers. (Winning the votes of Southern senators required President Franklin D. Roosevelt to effectively exclude all occupations then largely filled by African Americans.)

In time, the act was expanded to cover some of those workers, but agricultural laborers still have no federal legal right to collect overtime, home healthcare workers have no right to the minimum wage and “tipped” workers such as waiters are entitled to a minimum of just $2.13 an hour. Nor are agricultural and domestic workers accorded the right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act (though farm workers have won this right on the state level in California), and such low-paid independent contractors as port truckers and taxi drivers are similarly excluded.

As construction workers, the Diaz 12 actually came under the protections of wage, hour and unionization laws. But employers know they can violate these laws with impunity when their workers have no union contract and are undocumented. The odds are overwhelming that the outcome of such conflicts is worker deportation, not management fines. This de facto exemption of undocumented immigrants from the protection of workplace laws actually encourages employers to hire more undocumented workers. It is easy for management to ignore labor laws when employees can’t complain.

Last week, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and California Reps. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and George Miller (D-Martinez) introduced legislation (the POWER Act) that would give workers like Diaz provisional “U visas.” The visas were designed to provide temporary legal status to immigrant victims who come forward to report violent crimes, and the proposed legislation would expand the protection to those who come forward to report workplace violations. Such legislation, Menendez pointed out, would not only protect immigrants but keep unscrupulous employers from lowering labor standards generally. “When some workers are easy to exploit,” Menendez said, “conditions for all workers suffer.”

That’s also the message that Diaz brought to the Capitol last week. “When I was in jail, I met many workers with stories like mine, but whose voices are never heard,” he said. “I made a promise to them that I would bring their stories out with me.”

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.

http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jun/24/opinion/la-oe-meyerson-undocumented-abuses-20110624

News From the Front: The POWER Act – Huffington Post – 6/20/11

In the fight for workers’ right to organize in America, a 19-year-old migrant construction worker is on the front lines.

Josue Diaz is a member of the Congress of Day Laborers in New Orleans. After Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast, Josue was taken to Texas to do treacherous clean-up work. He gutted houses, removing toxic sludge with his bare hands. His work allowed families to come home.

Josue was denied the masks and respirators given to the American workers on the site. He was refused breaks, worked to exhaustion, and forced to sleep in a makeshift labor camp. In response, Josue acted in the proudest tradition of labor leaders in America: he led workers in a strike to demand their dignified working conditions. The employer’s response was to fire Josue and his fellow workers and evict them in the middle of the night without pay.

Retaliatory firings are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. Josue should have been able to go to government agencies to report the abuse. Instead, he was greeted outside by police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. They detained Josue, and disappeared with him into the vast darkness of the post-hurricane landscape. He is now fighting removal, and his case has become a national flashpoint for the debate on ICE’s role in undercutting worker power.

Why does Josue’s story matter for American workers? Because across the nation, employers are exploiting immigrant workers — whether day laborers or formal guestworkers on H2A and H2B visas — in a way that undercuts struggling American workers even further.

When brave migrant workers like Josue try to assert their basic rights to full wages and safe, dignified conditions, employers conspire with ICE to turn immigration enforcement into a weapon. The result for U.S. workers is that job opportunities, wages, and working conditions decline every day. Because immigrant workers cannot organize to protest labor abuses, employers have a captive workforce that has no choice but to work for less at lower standards. In the race to the bottom, all workers lose.

Stories like Josue’s — and what they mean for American workers — are what inspired the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation Act, or POWER Act. Senator Robert Menendez re-introducedthe bill to the Senate on June 14, and Reps. George Miller and Judy Chu introduced a parallel version in the House. The POWER Act protects the right of immigrant workers to hold employers accountable without fear of retaliation. It would provide temporary protection for immigrant victims of crime and labor retaliation so that employers who are guilty of labor violations may be held accountable. In the process, it would protect the security and dignity of work for American workers as well.

Workers across the country need the POWER Act. In New York, domestic workers face physical violence on their way to winning a domestic worker Bill of Rights. In California, day laborers fear deportation as they combat wage theft. The New York Times has revealed details of how ICE advised a major marine fabrication company on how to carry out illegal private deportations of metalworkers from India who organized to break up a labor trafficking chain.

Protected by the POWER Act, these workers and many thousands of others will be able to organize, without fear, to end the severe labor exploitation that marks our era. American workers would see wages rise, working conditions improve, and their own right to organize become more secure. If the current race to the bottom is one we all lose, the fight to pass the POWER Act — the fight of Josue and his allies across America — is one where all workers win.

Sarita Gupta is executive director of Jobs with Justice. Saket Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarita-gupta/news-from-the-front_b_880547.html

Sen. Menendez, Reps. Miller and Chu re-introduce POWER Act

Sen. Menendez, Reps. Miller and Chu launch POWER Act

Bill anchors campaign to defend workers’ right to organize

Washington, D.C., June 14, 2011—Today, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez re-introduced to the Senate the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act, while a House version was introduced by Reps. George Miller and Judy Chu. The POWER Act is designed to protect the right of immigrant workers to expose labor abuses without fear of retaliation—which will secure job opportunities, wages, and working conditions for U.S.-born workers as well. (Read full text here.)

Too often, when immigrant workers attempt to organize to combat exploitation, employers use immigration enforcement as a weapon to quash organizing efforts and trump labor law. The POWER Act ensures that immigrant workers who try to exercise their basic civil and labor rights are protected from retaliation. Simultaneously, the bill ensures that American workers’ wages and conditions are not undermined by employers who pit them against a captive workforce of exploited immigrant workers.

The POWER Act’s key provisions include:

  • Measures to ensure that worker protection laws are equally enforced in all workplaces.
  • U visa eligibility for workers suffering serious labor violations.
  • Temporary legal status with work authorization for victims of crime and labor retaliation.
  • Measures to ensure that workers in labor disputes have the chance to provide information to federal authorities before deportation proceedings.
  • Measures to hold employers responsible for labor law violations.

 

“Across the country, employers are using immigration enforcement as a weapon to stop workers from organizing for dignity. The result is a race to the bottom that all workers lose,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.

“The POWER Act will let thousands of workers organize, without fear, to end the severe labor exploitation that marks our era,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice.

For more information, go to http://www.thepoweract.com.

CONTACT:
Jacob Horwitz, Lead Organizer
National Guestworker Alliance
jacob@guestworkeralliance.org, (504) 452-9159


Workers on the Front Lines

josueAfter Hurricanes Gustav and Ike forced people living on the Gulf Coast to evacuate, I was recruited to work along with 11 other workers from a day-laborer corner in New Orleans. The employer promised us good work, fair wages, safe conditions and housing in Texas. We believed him. When we arrived in Beaumont, we were horrified...
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