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Category: News Coverage

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

How A Democracy Works – New York Times – 6/3/11

Editorial

President Obama, who has spent two and a half years not delivering on his promise to fix immigration, gave a speech in El Paso last month and cloaked his failure in tough statistics — this many new border agents, that much fencing, these thousands of deportations.

As for the other parts of reform — where millions of immigrants get right with the law and get on with becoming Americans, where workers are better protected — he threw up his hands. He said immigration advocates “wish I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself. But that’s not how a democracy works.”

O.K., so maybe it isn’t. But there is a lot President Obama can and should do, using the discretion and authority granted to the executive branch and its agencies to make the system work better:

Mr. Obama can bolster public safety by pulling the plug on Secure Communities, a program that sends fingerprints of everyone booked by state or local police to Department of Homeland Security databases to be checked for immigration violations. It was supposed to focus on dangerous felons, but the heavy majority of those it catches are noncriminals or minor offenders — more than 30 percent have no convictions for anything.

The president should listen to the many law enforcement professionals and local officials, like the governors of New York and Illinois, who want nothing to do with Secure Communities. They say it endangers the public by catching the wrong people and stifling community cooperation with law enforcement.

The president can push much harder against the noxious anti-immigrant laws proliferating in the national free-for-all. The administration sued to stop Arizona’s radical scheme. But Utah, Alabama, Indiana and Georgia are trying to do the same thing.

He can grant relief from deportation to young people who would have qualified for the Dream Act, a filibustered bill that grants legal status to the innocent undocumented who enter college or the military. He can do the same for workers who would qualify for the Power Act, a stalled bill that seeks to prevent employers from using the threat of deportation and immigration raids to retaliate against employees who press for their rights on the job.

He can resist Republican lawmakers who want mandatory nationwide use of E-Verify, a flawed hiring database, which would likely lead to thousands of Americans losing their job because of data errors. A December report by the Government Accountability Office warned that E-Verify is plagued by inaccurate records and vulnerable to identity theft and employer fraud.

He can order the citizenship agency to keep families intact by making it easier for illegal immigrants who are immediate relatives of American citizens to fix their status without having to leave the country. Many already qualify for green cards but are afraid to risk getting stuck abroad under too-strict laws that could bar their re-entry.

He can bolster the civil rights division of the Department of Justice and give the Department of Labor more tools to strengthen protections for all workers and the authority to combat labor trafficking. Such authority now lies with Homeland Security, which means many immigrants are too frightened to speak up when their rights are abused.

As President Obama said in El Paso, the United States needs to address “the real human toll of a broken immigration system.” There’s work to do, Mr. President.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/04/opinion/04sat1.html


Suit Points to Guest Worker Program Flaws – New York Times – 2/1/10

By Julia Preston

Immigration authorities worked closely with a marine oil-rig company in Mississippi to discourage protests by temporary guest workers fromIndia over their job conditions, including advising managers to send some workers back to India, according to new testimony in a federal lawsuit against the company, Signal International.

The cooperation between the company and federal immigration agents is recounted in sworn depositions by Signal managers who were involved when tensions in its shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., erupted into a public clash in March 2007.

Since then, hundreds of the Indian workers have brought a civil rights lawsuit against the company, claiming they were victims of human trafficking and labor abuse. Signal International is fighting the suit and has sued American and Indian recruiters who contracted with the workers in India. The company claims the recruiters misled it — and the workers — about the terms of the work visas that brought them to this country.

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have opened separate investigations. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined in September that there was “reasonable cause” to believe the Indian guest workers at Signal had faced discrimination and a work environment “laced with ridicule and harassment.”

The Signal case has come to represent some of the flaws and pitfalls, for immigrants and for employers, in the H-2B temporary guest worker program. As Congressional lawmakers weigh moving forward this year on an overhaul of the immigration system, they are debating whether to include an expansion of guest worker programs.

A lawyer for Signal, Erin C. Hangartner, said the company could not comment on the suit.

As it rushed to repair offshore oil rigs after Hurricane Katrina, Signal International hired about 500 skilled metalworkers from India in 2006. Numerous workers have said that they paid as much as $20,000 to Signal’s recruiters, many going into debt or selling their homes. They said recruiters had promised that their visas would soon be converted to green cards, allowing them to remain as permanent residents.

Once the workers realized they would not receive green cards, many complained of fraud and banded together to seek help from American lawyers.

In a deposition in the lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in New Orleans, Signal’s chief operating officer, Ronald Schnoor, said he grew frustrated with Indian workers who were “chronic whiners.” In early 2007 he decided to fire several who were encouraging protests.

Those workers “were making impossible demands” for the company to secure green cards for them or to repay the high fees, Mr. Schnoor said. They were “taking workers away from their work and actually trying to get them to join some effort they were organizing,” he said.

Mr. Schnoor and Darrell Snyder, a manager in the shipyard, where the Indians were living in a labor camp, said they had consulted with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for “guidance” on how to fire the workers, following the rules of the H-2B program.

Mr. Schnoor said the “direction” he received from an immigration enforcement agent was this: “Don’t give them any advance notice. Take them all out of the line on the way to work; get their personal belongings; get them in a van, and get their tickets, and get them to the airport, and send them back to India.”

Signal managers said they tried to carry out those instructions on March 9, 2007, putting several Indian workers into vans to take them to the airport. They were prevented from leaving the shipyard by immigrant advocates gathered at the gates.

In an internal e-mail message 10 days later, Mr. Snyder reported that another immigration official had assured him in a meeting that day that the agency would pursue any Indian workers who left their jobs, “if for no other reason than to send a message to the remaining workers that it is not in their best interests to try and ‘push’ the system.”

Carl Falstrom, an immigration lawyer in New Orleans who is not associated with the Signal case, said there were rules for employers who fired guest workers. They are required to provide return airfare to the workers’ home countries, and they are supposed to notify the visa agency, Citizenship and Immigration Services, when workers are no longer employed. But, Mr. Falstrom said, private companies cannot carry out deportations.

Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, which represents some workers in the lawsuit, said the managers’ testimony showed that immigration enforcement agents had “advised the corporation on how to retaliate against workers who were organizing.”

An ICE spokesman, Brian Hale, said he could not comment on a continuing investigation. But Mr. Hale said ICE agents were generally aware that a company that fires workers in the H-2B program “is prohibited from compelling individuals to get on the plane.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/us/02immig.html

POWER Act would end worker abuse, senator says – Chicago Independent Examiner – 4/14/11

By Terrie Albano

Flanked by civil rights and union leaders, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., announced today, April14, at a Capitol Hill press conference, legislation that would strengthen worker and immigrant rights.
Menendez said the POWER Act (Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation) was written in response to numerous reports from around the country that employers use the threat of deportation and immigration raids to retaliate against workers who speak up for their rights on the job.

One such story comes from Daniel Castellanos, an engineer from Lima, Peru.

Read more ...

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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