Workers on the Front Lines

Below are the stories of workers in many different industries who have organized for their rights against labor abuses—just a few of the thousands of cases continuing today all across America that demonstrate the need for the POWER Act.

Josue’s Story

After 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. He transported us to Beaumont, Texas — an area hit hard by Hurricane Ike, where the residents had still not been able to return.

When we arrived in Beaumont, we were horrified. We were forced to live in tents in an isolated labor camp at an abandoned oil refinery. We were made to work in toxic conditions without safety equipment. We were subjected to racist and dehumanizing treatment. After we risked our health doing the most dangerous work, the company would send in white workers with safety equipment and protections to finish the rest of the job. They thought we Latinos were disposable workers.

So we organized. When we protested the discrimination and illegal treatment, our employer evicted us from the labor camp in the middle of the night without pay. There was nowhere to go — outside the labor camp there was only devastation for miles around. We demanded the wages he owed us for our work. But he called local police and ICE. We were arrested immediately. Instead of enforcing our labor rights against the company, the police and ICE tried to turn us into criminals.

I spent 78 days in jail for demanding the $250 in unpaid wages. Our arrest was based on lies the employer made to retaliate against us for speaking out. We fought to make the District Attorney recognize this — and we won. She withdrew all of the charges. We should have been released. But ICE detained us.

Daniel’s Story

Daniel was among the first guestworkers to arrive in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He is a founding member of the National Guestworker Alliance.

Just after  katrina, I saw an ad in a Peruvian newspaper. An employer in New Orleans was looking for workers. Recruiters for a New Orleans hotel giant, Patrick Quinn, promised us good jobs, fair pay, and comfortable accommodations. They asked for $3,000 for the visa. I plunged my family into debt to pay the fees.

When I came to the United States I found that all the promises they made were false.

Patrick Quinn had brought about 300 workers from Peru, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic on H-2B visas. We were living in atrocious conditions and were subjected to humiliating treatment. When we raised our voices, we were threatened with deportation. And because of the terms of the H-2B visa, we did not have the right to quit. We could not work for anyone else.In order to receive H-2B visas, Patrick Quinn had to convince the Department of Labor that he could not find a single US worker willing or able to do the work he was offering.

When I arrived in New Orleans, I found that his hotels were full of displaced African-Americans — survivors of Hurricane katrina who were desperately looking for work. If Quinn had needed workers, all he had to do was to go to his own hotel and offer people work. Instead of hiring workers from the African-American community, he sent recruiters to hire us. At around $6 an hour we were cheaper. As temporary workers, we were more exploitable. We were hostage to the debt in our home countries; we were terrified of deportation; and we were bound to Quinn and could not work for anyone else. We were Patrick Quinn’s captive workforce.

But Patrick Quinn underestimated us. We built an organization and filed a major federal lawsuit against him.Meanwhile, we heard stories — some much worse than our own — of other guestworkers who were being stripped of their dignity by employers across the Gulf Coast. Employers were holding workers captive in labor camps; confiscating their passports; subjecting them to surveillance; leasing workers for a profit in violation of morality and the law; and trafficking workers into conditions of imprisonment. We decided to fight. We founded a membership organization called the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, which grew into the National Guestworker Alliance.

Since our founding, we have fought publicly to defend the rights of guestworkers. We have protested employers who exploit us. We have confronted recruiters, subcontractors, and the police — the white power structure of the racist South. We have conducted citizens’ arrests, triggered federal investigations, and freed guestworkers from conditions of involuntary servitude in labor camps and plantations. We have traveled on foot to Washington, and held hunger strikes to force members of Congress and the US Department of Justice to confront the exploitative realities of the H-2B program.

Maria’s Story

I came to the United States 10 years ago from my family’s home in Oaxaca [Mexico]. There were no jobs there. We planted corn and beans just to have something to eat. I told my mother I was going to America so that I could have a little money to buy food and clothes.

When I first came to Immokalee, the grower I worked for said I would earn almost a dollar for every [32-pound] bucket of tomatoes I picked. [In fact, the piece rate was 45 cents for each bucket.] I picked 70 buckets, but then he didn’t pay me at all. I spent a week trying to get paid, but he told me there was no money. Finally I met someone from the Coalition [of Immokalee Workers (CIW)], who said they could help me. I went to their office and they made a phone call to the grower. After that, I got paid.

Now I go to the CIW office every Sunday for the women’s group meeting. We talk about our lives and our jobs, and learn a little English.

I got married after I came to the United States. My husband Francisco also works in the fields. We have three children. I send my mother $100 a month during the high season, but in the summertime I can’t [send her anything] because there is no work and no money. When my father died two years ago, I could not even go home to Oaxaca for his funeral because I couldn’t afford it. I am thinking of going north this summer to pick more crops and earn some money.

The heat in the fields is terrible. At times I ache all over, as if I have the flu. I almost fainted this week. Tomatoes are the worst crop because they put so many chemicals on them. Some people can’t tolerate it. This season, several workers had to go to the hospital because of pesticide exposure. I’m not that sensitive, but the pesticides give me a rash and a cough. The field bosses abuse people while we work, even though we’re not doing anything to deserve maltreatment. It is so hard working in the fields, sometimes I feel like crying. But if we don’t work, how will we support our children? I want my children to study, so that when they are grown, they won’t have to suffer like me.

The grower I work for now sells tomatoes to Publix. Publix has not joined the CIW agreement, so I haven’t received the extra penny a pound. In April, we went on a three-day march over that issue. Because the march was against Publix, I knew that I had to go.

Beatriz’s Story

My name is Beatriz Garayalde. I’m from Uruguay and I’m a member of Domestic Workers United in New York. I took a job at one employer’s home after they insisted for months, convincing me of the many advantages I would have, that I was the right person, and that they couldn’t think of anyone else to take care of their children. Many of the promises dissolved the day I arrived. The pay was low and was issued only once a month. I didn’t have any hours or days off, holidays, nothing. I don’t think I slept at all during the first three months. I stayed in the room with the children. My only real sleep was between 7 a.m., when the parents came to my room for the children, until 9 a.m., when I went back to work. After getting up, I’d wet my head and stick it out of the window in the dead of winter so I could stay awake. And if I managed to sleep some at night, my brain would be still be alert, listening to the children’s breathing. During the day, I’d do my chores, cook, clean and take care of the children — months passed like this, working day and night — I forgot that I was a person, only looking after the children and the housework.

I loved those children (and still do) and so I put up with the long hours and low pay. I was isolated; I didn’t speak with anyone. I started to fear people on the street, in the parks. When I started asking for time off, I got fired. It was very sad separating from the children and trying to understand how the employers had seen in me the potential for cheap labor.

When one lives and works in a home, not having any other place to go, this creates the perfect condition for abuse to happen in many cases. Employers are unclear about their legal and ethical responsibilities. We make it possible for New Yorkers to work and have personal time because their children, elderly, homes and pets are taken care of and in good hands.

For these reasons, Domestic Workers United fights so that our work is recognized as real work. Working with children is care work that’s carried out under constant pressure. We are responsible for other human lives.

Clearly, we need justice. We need laws that protect us (regardless of whether or not we’re documented).  Domestic workers represent a hidden labor force that will remain so while there are no laws to regulate it and bring it to the forefront. We have to recognize the importance of this work — which fuels the economy. As we say in DWU, “We have a dream that one day all work will be valued equally.”

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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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