Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘H-2A guestworkers’

Labor “Solutions”

Monday, June 29th, 2009

“Our clients receive happy, appreciative employees that will thank you for allowing them the opportunity to work for you,” boasted Kansas City staffing company Giant Labor Solutions. Contract for workforce needs with their company and “your recruiting, hiring, and payroll expenses will dramatically drop.”

What a pity trifles like alleged racketeering, forced labor trafficking, wire fraud and money laundering can come between employers and a cheap, compliant workforce.

As Thomas Frank describes the federal charges against Giant Labor in a recent Wall Street Journal column:

“The Kansas City ring recruited hundreds of workers from Jamaica, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic with promises of visas through the federal H-2B seasonal worker program. To get the process started, however, the indictment says that workers had to pay the accused racketeers hefty fees.

“Once in America, the workers found themselves at the mercy of the traffickers, who allegedly kept “them as modern-day slaves under threat of deportation,” in the words of James Gibbons of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The recruiters apparently took care to keep the workers in debt, charging them fees for uniforms, for transportation, and for rent in overcrowded apartments. Paychecks would frequently show “negative earnings,” in the words of the indictment. And if the workers refused to go along with the scheme, the traffickers held the ultimate trump card, the indictment claims: They “threatened to cancel the immigration status” of the workers, rendering them instantly illegal.”

The situation vividly illustrates the perils of guest worker programs. But it’s not only the trafficked immigrants who lost out at Giant Labor.

The exploited laborers primarily worked on hotel housekeeping staffs, cleaning rooms. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they shared the occupation with more than 400,000 U.S. workers in 2008, making a national median wage of $9.13 an hour. It’s not hard to imagine that hotel owners might not ask too many troublesome questions when a company like Giant Labor stepped in with a deal to slash their labor costs. But neither is it hard to conceive the impact of those lower wages and miserable working conditions on other hotel employees trying to get by on what is already a poverty wage for families.

But if we can drag hotel workers down, we can also raise them up. In the New York City metro area, for example, housekeepers average $15.30 an hour and many get full family health benefits. The reason, of course, is the high unionization rate in the area’s hotel industry, which pushes even non-union hotels to offer competitive pay and benefits to prevent their most efficient employees from leaving – or worse yet, organizing a union of their own.

The nation faces a stark choice when it comes to hotel work, or any other employment. We can pass the Employee Free Choice Act, and watch a wave of union organizing lift workers throughout the country. Or we can expand guest worker programs and stick with a status quo where Americans compete for work with millions of undocumented workers with no effective rights on the job. You can bet hotel employees in Kansas City will feel the difference.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This article originally appeared in DMI Blog on June 23, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

DOL to suspend Bush H-2A Rules

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

The Labor Department’s announcement of its proposed temporary suspension of the Bush Administration’s changes to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program will be officially published in the Federal Register today (Tuesday, March 17th).

The Bush Administration finalized its changes to the guestworker program in midnight legislation last December. The new rules for the program, which slash wages and worker protections for our nation’s farmworkers, went into effect January 17th.

Several farmworker groups, including the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) and Farmworker Justice, among others, warned that the changes would have devastating effects for agricultural workers and tried to prevent them from taking effect. Those groups praised the new administration’s decision to review the new rules. Baldemar Velásquez of FLOC called the proposal “an important victory against the Bush Administration’s closed door policies in not allowing farm workers to have a say over important issues impacting their livelihood.”

“We thank the Obama administration. Our president has clearly demonstrated that we, Americans, now have a government that listens and cares about farm workers” said UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez. “Today’s announcement is definitely a victory and is the first step in ensuring that the women and men who pick our food are treated fairly.”

The proposed suspension would be for a period of nine months and would give the Labor Department time to review the Bush regulations. There will be a ten day public comment period.

Meanwhile workers who begin their contracts during the period the Bush Administration’s rules are in effect (from January 17th until the suspension begins) may end up working for the lower wages and benefits of the Bush rules, said Bruce Goldstein, Executive Director of Farmworker Justice.

“A suspension of the Bush rules would be a great relief for our nation’s farm workers. The rules were illegal and DOL is acting responsibly in announcing plans to review them. However, it’s unclear what this means for workers who started their contracts under the Bush rules. The Department should not leave them out.”

A Labor Day Attack on Farmworkers

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Amid all the hype of political conventions, analysis of the Republican VP pick and Labor Day celebrations for the rest of the country, the Bush Administration will launch an attack on the nation’s farmworkers.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, at any moment, will announce extensive changes to the H-2A guestworker program, slashing wages and reducing worker protections for hundreds of thousands of our nation’s farmworkers. These policy changes deserve our attention.

The H-2A program is a temporary agricultural guestworker program that permits employers to apply for permission to hire foreign labor for jobs lasting ten months or less. To bring in H-2A guestworkers, employers must show that they cannot find U.S. workers who want the jobs. These will be the most far-reaching changes in the laws regulating guestworker programs since 1942. If the changes are finalized, as we expect them to be next week, and take effect, this Administration will have returned us to an era of agricultural labor exploitation that many thought ended over 65 years ago.

What a Labor Day gift to farmworkers!

The Administration will finalize plans that were published several months ago. They called for cutting wage rates and wage protections for both domestic and foreign workers, minimizing recruitment obligations inside the U.S., ending the requirement to provide workers with free housing that meets federal and state safety requirements, curtailing or eliminating transportation reimbursement payments, and removing much of the government oversight that is supposed to deter and remedy illegal employer conduct. There is much more and it’s almost all terrible.

U.S. farmworkers will be denied jobs and forced to quit due to the onerous conditions. The aim of the Administration is to create an endless supply of guestworkers who our government will allow to be exploited at low wage wages and suffer grueling productivity standards that U.S. workers cannot afford to accept. By enticing employers to use vulnerable guestworkers at less than the cost of U.S. workers, the Administration theorizes that it will wean employers from hiring undocumented workers.

This low-wage, low-road strategy is not just morally reprehensible, it is economically destructive. Most farmworkers are undocumented. The Administration’s proposal does absolutely nothing to address that reality. They are already here doing this back-breaking work. Most of them are law-abiding people seeking to support their families, embodying those All-American values such as “self-sacrifice” and “hard-work”. Employers need them. The Bush Administration cannot make them go away.

For decades government commissions have told agriculture that it must stabilize its workforce and improve productivity by increasing wages and modernizing its labor practices, rather than relying on new waves of exploitable foreign labor to overcome high employee turnover.

We call on Congress, including Senator McCain and Senator Obama, to do whatever it takes to stop the Administration from issuing its planned changes to the H-2A guestworker program. There are reasonable alternatives that have won bipartisan support. Both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama support those alternatives.

During this Labor Day season, amid the election year hype, we must think about the people toiling to put food on our tables. If the Administration issues the final regulations, as we expect they will any day, we plan to ask you to tell Congress to prevent those regulations from every taking effect.

For more information on the H-2A regulatory changes, and news as it develops, please see the H-2A News page on the Farmworker Justice website.

About the Author: Bruce Goldstein joined Farmworker Justice as a staff attorney in 1988, then served as Co-Executive Director starting in September 1995, and was named Executive Director in July 2005. At Farmworker Justice, Bruce has focused on litigation and advocacy on immigration issues and labor law, with a special emphasis on the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. Bruce’s activities on “guestworker” issues have included litigation against private employers and the government, advocacy in administrative agencies and Congress, training of lawyers and paralegals, building nation-wide coalitions, advising grassroots organizations, and testifying before Congress. Bruce has also sought to address the problem of “farm labor contractors” and other labor intermediaries used by farming operations, often in an attempt to avoid responsibility for complying with labor laws. Bruce received his bachelor’s degree in 1977 from the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, and his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis (1980). He has worked at the National Labor Relations Board, at a legal services office in East St. Louis, Illinois, and in private law practice concentrating in labor law, personal injury and civil rights.

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