Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘better working conditions’

Dairy workers call on Ben and Jerry’s to give them better hours and fair wages

Friday, April 7th, 2017

This week, dairy workers are using an annual ice cream giveaway day by Ben and Jerry’s to bring awareness to the long, hard hours and low wages that many in the industry face.

In the state of Vermont and across the country, dairy workers and supporters of migrant farmworkers rallied outside the ice cream company’s storefronts on Tuesday to call attention to what they say are human rights abuses in the dairy supply chain.

Migrant workers called on Ben and Jerry’s—a company known for its progressive values—to implement the “Milk with Dignity” program as part of an agreement the company signed in 2015 to ensure that the cooperatives supplying the milk would improve the quality of life for migrant workers, such as providing a weekly day off, improving health and safety conditions, and alleviating overcrowded housing issues, among other labor conditions.

Two years out, Ben and Jerry’s has yet to implement the initiative despite sourcing its milk from cooperatives that may not care about the abuses of dairy workers. The ice cream company also placed partial blame on the advocacy group Migrant Justice for being slow to finalize the draft agreement.

“We’ve been working diligently with them since then on the details of how to successfully operationalize the program, which still needs finalizing,” a recent Ben and Jerry’s statement read. “We strongly support the goals of Milk with Dignity and believe that a worker led program is the best way to protect the rights and dignity of the workers on Vermont’s dairy farms. We remain committed to the agreement we signed and are continuing to work towards a successful conclusion with Migrant Justice.”

Thelma Gomez, a Migrant Justice member, is one of many Vermont dairy workers who want to see better conditions for people in their industry. Her husband, who works on a dairy farm that sells to the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, which Ben and Jerry’s buys from, has worked seven days a week for the past two years because he doesn’t have any days off from work. As a result, he has missed out on crucial life milestones of their twin three-year-old daughters.

Gomez’s husband is far from alone. According to a 2014 survey of 172 dairy farmworkers across the state of Vermont, 40 percent of workers said they didn’t get weekly days off. Another 40 percent said they weren’t paid the Vermont state minimum wage; farmworkers aren’t covered by federal and most states’ wage laws. And 30 percent of workers reported overcrowded housing.

The dairy industry has come to rely on undocumented immigrant labor partly because Americans don’t want to do the work, but also because agricultural visas only cover seasonal work, which excludes the year-round dairy work process. As a result, some of the 1,500 immigrant dairy workforce in Vermont are exploited by employers to conduct harsh labor.

“These are undocumented workers who are filling this labor need because farms in Vermont have had to grow and consolidate in order to deal with the fluctuating prices in the industry,” Will Lambeck, a staff member with the Migrant Justice, told ThinkProgress. “[Farms] are growing but they’re still relying on cheap labor to get the job done, relying on workers who will work 60, 70, 80 hours a week without breaks, without days off, for what’s often pay below minimum wage.”

“Those are, by and large, undocumented workers,” Lambeck added.

Advocate Enrique “Kike” Balcazar (pronounced “Kee-kay”), a 24-year-old Mexican immigrant, helped establish the “Milk with Dignity” program at Migrant Justice because he wanted to change the 60-to-80 hour work weeks that he regularly faced. Most recently, he made national news after the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency detained him as he was leaving the Migrant Justice office. Balcazar has since been released on bail and is now awaiting a hearing before an immigration judge.

Though Lambeck would not comment on Balcazar’s immigration status, he believes ICE agents may have targeted Balcazar because he is a prominent organizer and frequently shows up for immigrant rights events.

The Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies have broadened enforcement priorities and empowered ICE agents to cast a wider net. Lambeck said he believes that the recent detention of Balcazar along with two other Vermont dairy workers was an intentional tactic to force immigrants to continue feeling “persecuted” and “precarious.”

“What ICE and the federal government wants, isn’t to deport every single immigrant in the country because they know that this country needs the labor of immigrant workers,” Lambeck said. “What the motivation of these sorts of attacks is and the federal policy behind them, is to create a class of that are so persecuted and so precarious in their status in this country that they accept conditions that they otherwise would not.”

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on April 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Esther Yu-Hsi Lee is the Immigration Reporter for ThinkProgress. She received her B.A. in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a M.A. in Psychology from New York University. A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary, Esther is passionate about immigration issues from all sides of the debate. She is also a White House Champion of Change recipient. Esther is originally from Los Angeles, CA. Contact her at EYLEE@thinkprogress.org.

Groundbreaking Bill in Illinois Would Give Temp Workers Equal Pay and Rights as Direct Hires

Monday, February 13th, 2017

Sweeping legislation introduced in the Illinois state legislature last month would dramatically improve pay, benefits and working conditions for almost a million of the state’s temp workers toiling in factories, warehouses and offices.

The Responsible Job Creation Act, sponsored by State Rep. Carol Ammons, aims to transform the largely unregulated temporary staffing industry by introducing more than 30 new worker protections, including pay equity with direct hires, enhanced safety provisions, anti-discrimination measures and protection from retaliation.

The innovative law is being pushed by the worker centers Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) and Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), which say it would restore the temp industry to its original purpose of filling short-term, seasonal labor needs and recruiting new employees into direct-hire jobs.

Across Illinois, there are nearly 850,000 temp workers every year. Nationally, temp jobs are at record highs, with more than 12 million people flowing through the industry per year.

“Instead of temps just replacing people who are sick or coming during periods of higher production, they’re actually becoming a permanent staffing option,” says CWC executive director Tim Bell. “There’s nothing ‘temporary’ about it.”

Mark Meinster, executive director of WWJ, says there has been “an explosion” of temp workers in recent decades, especially in manufacturing and warehousing. “Those sectors are part of large, global production networks where you see hyper competition and an intense drive to lower costs. Companies can drive down labor costs by using temp agencies.”

CWC activist Freddy Amador worked at Cornfields Inc., in Waukegan, for five years. He tells In These Times the company’s direct hires start off making at least $16 an hour, but later get raises amounting to $21 an hour. As a temp, however, Amador was only making $11 an hour after five years on the job.

“As a temp worker, you don’t have vacation days, sick days, paid holidays”—all of which are available to direct hires, Amador says.

In These Times reached out to Cornfields to comment on this story. It did not immediately respond.

“Once a company is using a temp agency, it no longer has to worry about health insurance, pension liability, workers’ comp, payroll and human resources costs,” Meinster explains. “It also doesn’t have to worry about liability for workplace accidents, wage theft, or discrimination because, effectively under the law, the temp agency is the employer of record.”

This arrangement drives down standards at blue-collar workplaces, Bell says. “The company itself doesn’t have to worry about safety conditions because these workers aren’t going to cost them any money if they’re injured.”

“The safety for temp workers is really bad,” Amador says. “Temp agencies send people to do a job, but nobody trains them. Sometimes temp workers are using equipment they don’t know how to use, and they’re just guessing how to use it. I’ve seen many accidents.”

Under the new bill, temps like Amador would receive the same pay, benefits and protections as direct hires.

“This is landmark legislation,” Bell says. “There’s nothing like it in the United States.”

Last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting found a pattern of systemic racial and gender discrimination in the temp industry nationwide. Industry whistleblowers allege that African-American workers are routinely passed over for jobs in favor of Latinos, who employers consider to be more exploitable.

Discrimination can be hard to prove because staffing agencies aren’t required to record or report the demographics of who comes in looking for work. As Bell explains, applications often aren’t even filled out in the temp industry, but rather “someone just shows up to go to a job.”

The new bill would require temp agencies to be more transparent about their hiring practices by recording the race, gender and ethnicity of applicants and reporting that information to the state.

Furthermore, the bill includes an anti-retaliation provision that says if temp workers are fired or disciplined after asserting their legal rights, the burden is on the company and temp agency to prove that it was not done in retaliation.

“There’s this fundamental imbalance in the labor market that leads to a whole range of abuses and then non-enforcement of basic labor rights,” Meinster explains. “The changes we’re proposing in this bill get at addressing that structural issue.”

To craft the bill and get it introduced, CWC and WWJ received research and communications support from Raise the Floor Alliance, a coalition of eight Chicago worker centers. The Illinois AFL-CIO, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, National Employment Law Project, Latino Policy Forum and Rainbow Push Coalition are among the legislation’s other supporters.

Though the Illinois government is still paralyzed by an unprecedented budget stalemate between the Republican governor and Democratic legislature, organizers are optimistic about the bill’s prospects.

“There’s potential for huge movement around this bill,” Bell says, citing the popularity of the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, which both touched on the theme of economic insecurity. While Trump focuses on jobs fleeing the country, Bell notes that “jobs here in this country have been downgraded.”

“We need to be talking about job quality, not only ‘more jobs.’ Both are important,” Meinster says. He believes existing temp jobs “could and should be good, permanent, full-time, direct-hire, living wage jobs with stability, respect and benefits.”

The author has worked with WWJ in the past on issues related to the temp industry.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

6 Ways We Could Improve NAFTA for Working People

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Today we released a blueprint for how to rewrite NAFTA to benefit working families. This past election there was much-needed discussion on the impact of corporate trade deals on our manufacturing sector and on working-class communities. The outline below puts forward real solutions that should garner bipartisan support if lawmakers are truly serious about realigning our trade policies to help workers.

We need a different direction on trade. This movement has been largely driven by working people. As we approach the inauguration of a new president, it is important that everyday working people’s perspectives lead the debate, starting with how to rewrite NAFTA.

The AFL-CIO has long supported rewriting the rules of NAFTA to provide more equitable outcomes for working families. To date, the biggest beneficiaries of NAFTA have been multinational corporations, which have gained by destroying middle-class jobs in the U.S. and Canada and replacing them with exploitative, sweatshop jobs in Mexico. It doesn’t have to be this way. With different rules, NAFTA could become a tool to raise wages and working conditions in all three North American countries, rather than to lower them.

6 Ways We Could Improve NAFTA for Working People

Key Areas for Improvement

1. Eliminate the private justice system for foreign investors.

NAFTA established a private justice system for foreign investors, thereby prioritizing corporate rights over citizens’ rights, giving corporations even more influence over our economy than they already have. This private justice system, known as investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, allows foreign investors to challenge local, state and federal laws before private panels of corporate lawyers. Although these lawyers are not accountable to the public, they are empowered to decide cases and award vast sums of taxpayer money to foreign businesses. Under NAFTA, these panels have awarded millions of dollars to corporations when local and state governments exercise their jurisdictional power to deny things such as municipal building permits for toxic waste processing facilities. ISDS gives foreign investors enormous leverage to sway public policies in their favor. Scrapping the entire system would help level the playing field for small domestic producers and their employees.

2. Strengthen the labor and environment obligations (the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation and the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation), include them in the agreement, and ensure they are enforced.

The NAFTA labor and environment side agreements were not designed to effectively raise standards for workers or to ensure clean air and water. Instead, they were hastily patched together to quiet NAFTA’s critics. These agreements should be scrapped and replaced with provisions that effectively and robustly protect international labor and environmental standards. Violators should be subject to trade sanctions when necessary—so that we stop the race to the bottom that has resulted from NAFTA. Without stronger provisions, environmental abuses and worker exploitation will continue unchecked.

3. Address currency manipulation by creating binding rules subject to enforcement and possible sanctions.

Within months after NAFTA’s approval by Congress, Mexico devalued the peso, wiping out overnight potential gains from NAFTA’s tariff reductions. This devaluation made imports from Mexico far cheaper than they otherwise would have been and priced many U.S. exports out of reach for average Mexican consumers. Countries should not use currency policies to gain trade advantages—something China, Japan and others have done for many years. All U.S. trade agreements, including NAFTA, should be upgraded to create binding rules, subject to trade sanctions, to prevent such game playing.

4. Upgrade NAFTA’s rules of origin, particularly on autos and auto parts, to reinforce auto sector jobs in North America.

NAFTA’s rules require that automobiles be 62.5% “made in North America” to qualify for duty-free treatment under NAFTA. Even though 62.5% seems high compared with the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s inadequate 45%, it still allows for nearly 40% of a car to be made in China, Thailand or elsewhere. The auto rule of origin should be upgraded to eliminate loopholes (through products “deemed originating” in North America) and to provide additional incentives to produce in North America. This, combined with improved labor standards, will contribute to a more robust labor market and help North American workers gain from trade.

5. Delete the procurement chapter that undermines “Buy American” laws (Chapter 10).

NAFTA contains provisions that require the U.S. government to treat Canadian and Mexican goods and services as “American” for many purchasing decisions, including purchases by the departments of Commerce, Defense, Education, Veterans Affairs and Transportation. This means that efforts to create jobs for America’s working families by investing in infrastructure or other projects, including after the financial crisis of 2008, could be ineffective. This entire chapter should be deleted.

6. Upgrade the trade enforcement chapter (Chapter 19).

NAFTA allows for a final review of a domestic anti-dumping or countervailing duty case by a binational panel instead of by a competent domestic court. This rule, omitted from subsequent trade deals, has hampered trade enforcement, hurting U.S. firms and their employees. It should be improved or omitted.

This blog originally appeared at aflcio.org on December 20, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.
Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at AFL-CIO.
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