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Posts Tagged ‘labor rights’

Inside the Trump Administration’s Plan to Shrink the NLRB

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Labor rights advocates are alarmed by a proposal to centralize more control of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters and shrink its network of regional offices. Widely viewed as another effort by appointees of President Donald Trump to reverse some union-friendly policies promoted by Obama appointees, the proposal is a step toward an even smaller role for the NLRB in protecting workers’ rights, these advocates charge.

News of the proposal leaked out to media outlets in mid-January, first to the Daily Labor Report and then to the The New York Times. The news reports focused on objections to the proposal by NLRB staff members at the agency’s 26 regional offices. Some of those staffers would be demoted, or lose their jobs entirely, if the proposal is implemented by NLRB General Counsel Peter B. Robb.

Trump appointee Robb “is a man in a big hurry” to remake the NLRB into an agency more responsive to the anti-union demands of conservative Republicans and business interests, says William B. Gould IV, a former NLRB chairman now teaching law at Stanford University. “He looks to be seizing control of the complaint process,” at the regional level, Gould tells In These Times. “That’s terribly important because it is the regional offices that are the great strength of the NLRB … The regional offices are where a union shop steward or a legal practitioner can go to have complaints handled in a professional way.”

Robb, appointed by Trump in September of last year and sworn in Nov. 17, comes to the post with strong anti-union credentials. As described by The New York Times, he was appointed “after a career largely spent representing management, including handling part of the Reagan administration’s litigation against the air traffic controllers’ union that waged an illegal strike in 1981. Most labor historians say the government’s hard line in firing the controllers contributed to organized labor’s decline…”

Robb’s proposal comes on the heels of recent decisions by the five-member board to roll back some Obama-era initiatives that favored unions. Those decisions were more explicitly political, coming after votes by board members in which Republican Party appointees narrowly prevailed over Democratic appointees. As general counsel to the agency, Robb is not a board member, but rather a White House appointee in charge of administering the day-to-day affairs of the agency under the general direction of the Board members.

According to Michael C. Duff, a professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law, the NLRB votes and the actions by Robb are “of a piece with the Trump agenda to downgrade the agency as a defender of labor rights as spelled in the National Labor Relations Act.” A former NLRB staff lawyer himself, Duff tells In These Timesthat “I don’t have a good feeling about what is going on. There is a sense that the agency is being hollowed out.”

“You get a sense that they [Republican appointees] are going to reverse everything,” in NLRB policy that is favorable to workers, Duff continues. As a former staffer who is still in regular contact with some of his NLRB colleagues, Duff says “the situation is probably more dramatic than it looks … [The trend] is essentially a repudiation of labor law as we know it.”

Part of the “hollowing out” process is cutting the budget of the agency. Daily Labor Report’s Laurence Dubé reported last year that a 6-percent proposed cut would mean the elimination of 275 jobs from the agency’s staff. The budget has not been finalized, but staff cuts are expected in the coming year, and may  continue throughout the Trump administration, predicts Duff.

Burt Pearlstone, president of the National Labor Relations Board Union, says the staff union has no comment on Robb’s proposal at this time. He tells In These Times that the executive committee of the staff union may take  up the issue at its next scheduled meeting, by may also wait until Robb’s proposals are more formalized

The staff union represents more than 700 NLRB employees in the regional offices and a second independent union, the National Labor Relations Board Professional Association (NLRBPA), represents many staff members at Washington, D.C., headquarters. No representative of the NLRMPA could be reached for comment.

Robb’s proposal to demote employees and consolidate regional offices was outlined in a conference call Jan. 11, in which Robb described the plan to NLRB mid-level administrators. According to Gould, the administrators were not provided with a written version of Robb’s proposal, but were alarmed enough to respond with a written objection that has been published by Daily Labor Report.

“As you can imagine, the information you provided to the Regional Directors has created much uncertainty and has disheartened us … It was unclear to us how many Districts you envision, how many Regional Offices would remain, how many Regional Directors would remain in that position, what the supervisory ratio would be, and when you envision removing Regional Directors from the Senior Executive Service … However, any anticipated changes must be thoughtfully considered so that the great work of the Agency remains. We would like to work with you in developing changes that would be appropriate to meet our challenges,” the NLRB staffers wrote.

“The NLRB has a lot of problems as an agency. The number of cases they handle is way down from when I started work at the Philadelphia regional office (in 1997), but there are still not enough people to handle the work load,” comments Duff.

“Pay freezes and government shut downs have an effect [on morale],” Duff continues. “From what I am hearing now, things are actually worse than you think.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 31, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

2017 was a year of eroding workers’ rights

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

There have been a series of victories for labor rights in recent years. Graduate student workers at private colleges and universities now have the right to unionize. In New York, employers are no longer allowed to ask for an employee’s salary history — a question that often hurts women and people of color. And the Fight for 15 has scored wins in cities across the country.

But the Trump administration stands in the way of much of the progress labor activists are demanding. It may not be as noisy or ripe for attention-grabbing headlines as Betsy DeVos’ education department or Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency, but Alexander Acosta’s labor department has rolled back a number of key Obama-era labor advances.

“Acosta is not a bomb-thrower,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, law professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unlike some of Trump’s other less traditional choices for agency heads, Acosta had already been confirmed by the Senate for three previous positions and was considered a safe choice for labor department secretary.

Still, it’s clear the department is now under a Republican administration.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces fair labor practices, has an employer-friendly majority. The General Counsel of the NLRB is Peter Robb, a lawyer who management-focused firm Jackson Lewis wrote would “set the stage for the board to reverse many of the pro-labor rulings issued by the Obama board”. The Senate also confirmed to the NLRB William Emanuel, whose nomination was supported by corporate donors and industry groups like the National Retail Federation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and National Restaurant Association. Emanuel’s work previous focused on union avoidance tactics and among his former clients were Amazon, Target, Uber, and FedEx.

With these new additions, the Department of Labor has been busy dismantling protections for workers. Here are some of the biggest ways the Trump administration rolled back workers’ rights in 2017:

Less accountability for corporations like McDonald’s

One of the labor rollbacks that gained the most attention this year was the board’s decision to overturn the new joint employer standard that was supposed to make it easier for corporations to be held accountable for unfair labor practices at their franchises. Labor advocates expected the decision for some time after the department rescinded guidance that defines who a joint-employer is.

The Obama administration’s standard on joint employers went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business. McDonald’s has tried to avoid responsibility for violations like wage-theft for years. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action and released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

“Under the previous rule, you only needed to show [McDonald’s] had a theoretical amount of control. They reserve the right to control terms and conditions of work and controlled those conditions in an indirect manner like setting policies that other companies have to follow,” Hirsch explained. “The new case has said that no, you need actual direct control. When push comes to shove, it’s a matter of evidence and how much proof you have, so you may well still have a case against McDonald’s but you’re going to have to show that there is more actual control.”

Reduced protections for quality investment advice

In August, the Labor Department said it would like to delay a rule that would require financial advisors to act in the best interest of their customers and their retirement accounts. According to a federal court filing, the department wanted to delay implementation of the rule to July 2019. The full implementation of the rule is currently set for January 2018.

There are two standards investors have to be aware of right now: the fiduciary standard and suitability standard. A financial adviser operating under what is called the “suitability standard” is only required to make sure a client’s investment is suitable for the client’s finances, age, and risk tolerance at that point in time, but they don’t have a huge legal obligation to monitor the investment for the client. Under the fiduciary standard, an adviser must keep monitoring the investment and keep the customer’s overall financial picture in mind. In addition, advisers must disclose all of their conflicts of interest, fees, and commissions under the fiduciary standard. Right now, it’s easier for advisers to push investments that will make them money but are not necessarily in clients’ best interest, said Paul Secunda, professor of law and director of the labor and employment law program at Marquette University Law School.

“That rule has been substantially cut back, though how far back we’re still waiting to see. The current admin is in a holding pattern right now and my sense is that it could be cut back fairly dramatically even further,” Secunda said.

None of these labor department actions have been good enough for the financial industry, however. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that included the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Financial Services Institute, the Financial Services Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sent a Dec. 8 letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The plaintiffs said the delay of regulation shouldn’t hold up their appeal, where they argue the department does not have the authority to promulgate the rule, according to InvestmentNews.

Reduced worker safety

Experts on labor violations and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told ThinkProgress they were concerned about how OSHA would respond to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, especially since the Trump administration has slashed worker safety rules from the Obama administration. 

Trump’s OSHA has left behind regulations on worker exposure to construction noise, combustible dust, and vehicles backing up in factories and construction sites, according to Bloomberg BNA. It also abandoned a rule that would change the way the agency decides on permissible exposure limits for chemicals. The July regulatory agenda did not list any new rule-making. The president’s 2018 budget would have killed OSHA’s Chemical Safety Board, which looks into chemical plant accidents, as well as the Susan Harwood grant program, which benefits nonprofits and unions that provide worker safety training.

“OSHA is taking a turn we usually see during Republican administrations, which means a lot less inspections and enforcement and a lot more trying to get employers to self-regulate or voluntarily comply which has not really worked that well historically,” Secunda said. “People who participate in these voluntary participation programs are usually employers who are already in compliance and those who continue to be bad actors are not really impacted by these voluntary programs. OSHA is about to be run by corporate America, which is obviously not good for employees.”

Deciding to let go of Obama-era overtime rule

In July, the labor department moved to roll back an Obama administration rule that would have expanded the number of workers eligible for overtime pay by 4.2 million. The department has not appealed a U.S. District Court in Texas that gave business groups the temporary injunction they wanted.

The current threshold for overtime pay is at just $23,660 a year, and the Obama-era rule would have nearly doubled that. In 1974, 62 percent of full-time salaried workers had a salary that allowed them to be eligible for overtime, but today, only 7 percent of full-time salaried workers earn a salary below this level, according toDavid Weill, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University who headed the Wage and Hour Division of the department during the Obama administration.

Referring to Acosta, Weill wrote in U.S. News, “Failure to appeal this flawed decision will leave millions working long hours with low pay and abrogate his responsibility to protect the hardworking people he and the Trump administration profess to care so much about.”

Labor department focus on ‘harmonious workplaces’

In one of the NLRB’s less discussed decisions this month, it overruled the Bush-era standard Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia. This standard went into further detail on whether facially neutral workplace rules, policies, and handbook provisions could unlawfully interfere with Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. (Under Section 7, it’s unlawful for employers to interfere with employees’ organizing rights.) The NLRB provides the example of employers threatening, interrogating, or spying on pro-union employees or promising employees benefits if they stay away from organizing as unlawful activity under Section 7.

Under the 2004 standard, employers could have the violated the National Labor Relations Act by instituting workplace rules that could be “reasonably construed” to prohibit workers from accessing these rights even if the employers don’t explicitly prohibit the activities.

Hirsch said he was surprised by the decision to reverse a Bush-era decision. “To me, it seems like they’re doing more than they needed to, which makes me wonder if they’re trying to make a point.”

Hirsch added that the decision appeared to carve out certain types of rules, such as a civility code in the workplace, and say they were permissible. The decision referred to employers who wanted “harmonious workplaces” and cast any opposition to such a requirement to be impractical, but Hirsch said there needs to be a balance in NLRB decisions between clarity and flexibility.

“That can be problematic bevause they’re rules that depending on the history of what has happened in that particular workplace and it could actually be viewed as fairly chilling for those employees,” Hirsch said. “… Labor and management relations aren’t always harmonious. In fact, they are designed not to be in a  lot of ways. Sometimes harsh language is used by both sides and sometimes that is OK, or we’re willing to tolerate that as part of the collective bargaining process rather than having violent strikes, like we did before the NRLA.”

‘Micro-unions’ are out of luck

The NLRB made another business-friendly decision this month when it decided that a unionized group of 100 welders and “rework specialists” at a manufacturing company with thousands of workers was improper. This means it will be easier for employers to oppose what are referred to as “micro unions” even though it can be advantageous for workers to organize this way. The decision went against eight federal appeals court rulings, according to Reuters.

LGBTQ workers’ not protected by Title VII

There is ongoing debate over whether LGBTQ workers have rights to ensure that they are treated fairly in the workplace under Title VII, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. In July, the Department of Justice undermined rights for LGBTQ people when it filed a brief arguing that prohibition of sex discrimination under federal law does not include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Sexual harassment of graduate students by faculty is a national problem

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

University of Wisconsin-Madison’s anonymous complaints of sexual harassment often rest on “institutional memory” and there is no actual requirement in place to document them, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

There are two channels for sexual harassment reports at the university. Students and employees can file formal complaints, which results in an investigation by the Title IX coordinator’s office, or they can report through an informal resolution that lets accusers remain anonymous but does not allow the university to mete out more severe penalties.

UW-Madison officials told the Wisconsin State Journal that the university is working on clearer policies for both of these processes, but confirmed that there is no policy in place requiring employees to track anonymous complaints.

The lack of a formal system to track anonymous sexual harassment complaints is particularly troublesome given the number of complaints made against faculty members by co-workers or students at UW-Masison. It’s fairly common for female graduate students at the university to experience sexual harassment from faculty members. A 2015 survey on sexual misconduct found that of those women who experienced harassment, 22.2 percent reported that their harasser was a faculty member at UW-Madison.

Experts interviewed by the Wisconsin State Journal — Neena Chaudhry, director of education and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, and Saunie Schuster, a co-founder of the Association of Title IX Administrators — said this is big problem for universities. Universities may not know that a faculty member is a serial harasser if they haven’t recorded multiple complaints, and the institution would be a legal target for sexual harassment victims.

The university responded to the Journal and said it is in the process of developing a system to record these allegations.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is hardly alone, however. Universities across the country have poor policies to address harassers in their university systems, even if that person has harassed people multiple times. Some universities may actively protect faculty who are accused of harassment.

In March 2015, Sujit Choudhry, the dean at UC Berkeley School of Law, was accused of harassment by his executive assistant. Berkeley investigators found that he had in fact harassed his assistant Tyann Sorrell, but in April of this year, the university reached a deal with him anyway, allowing him to receive research funding, keep tenure, and avoid any charges. His pay was reduced 10 percent and he had to apologize to Sorrell, but even with his pay cut, he made $373,500 annually.

Soon after the university reached this deal, experts on Title IX policy told ThinkProgress that the Choudhry deal is fairly common, because universities tend to identify more with the alleged harasser than the victim. In many cases, faculty members have more resources than the victim, and could drag out a lawsuit against the university after it metes out serious disciplinary consequences.

And too often, serial harassers are allowed to continue their harassment. In March, the Associated Press looked at 112 cases from January 2013 to April 2016 at nine campuses in the University of California system. The investigation found that rumors about the accused faculty circulated for years until universities took any kind of action??and that even after they did so, many faculty members kept their jobs.

The issue of faculty harassment of graduate students is a national one, and universities will have to adjust their policies if they’re going to address it. In 2016, researchers who surveyed 525 graduate students on sexual and gender-based harassment found that 38 percent of female participants and 23.4 percent of male participants self-reported that they had experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.

More recent research shows that faculty harassers are often serial harassers and engage in serious forms of harassment such as sexual assault. According to a study released in July, “A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty,” most harassers studied have physically rather than verbally harassed students. Some faculty harassers exhibited “domestic-abuse like behaviors.” Over half of the faculty cases studied — 53 percent — were alleged to have participated in serial harassment.

Graduate students hope to secure protection from harassment as they fight for their labor rights. Graduate students say that union representation and collective bargaining will help them get contracts that cover issues of sexual harassment.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

AFL-CIO Report Warns TPP Will Force Another Mass-Migration Into US

Friday, October 28th, 2016

dave.johnsonTrade agreements can be used to boost prosperity on all sides of trade borders by increasing business opportunities, raising wages and increasing choices. Or they can be used to concentrate corporate power, cutting wages and choices.

Guess which model our country’s corporate-written trade agreements have followed? (Hint: look around you: we have ever-increasing concentration of corporate power and concentration of wealth, limited competition, falling wages and limited opportunities to start new businesses.)

One way our corporate-written trade agreements have hurt most of us has been through forcing working people to compete in a race to the bottom. The effects on most of us are just devastating. For example:

“The Men Have Gone To The United States”

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) forced many small Mexican farmers out of business. Many of these small farmers were forced to migrate north in search of a way to make a living.

A McClatchy Newspapers report from February, 2011, “Free trade: As U.S. corn flows south, Mexicans stop farming,” examined the dynamic:

Look around the rain-fed corn farms in Oaxaca state, and in vast areas of Mexico, and one sees few young men, just elderly people and single mothers.

“The men have gone to the United States,” explained Abel Santiago Duran, a 56-year-old municipal agent, as he surveyed this empty village in Oaxaca state.

… A flood of U.S. corn imports, combined with subsidies that favor agribusiness, are blamed for the loss of 2 million farm jobs in Mexico. The trade pact worsened illegal migration, some experts say, particularly in areas where small farmers barely eke out a living.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) gathered migration facts in, “How U.S. Trade Policy Has Contributed to Mass-Migration to America.” Some of the numbers:

In total, nearly 5 million Mexican farmers were displaced while seasonal labor in agro-export industries increased by about 3 million – for a net loss of 1.9 million jobs.iii

The annual number of immigrants from Mexico more than doubled from 370,000 in 1993 (the year before NAFTA went into effect) to 770,000 in 2000 – a 108% increase.

That Was Then, This Is TPP

Now another corporate-written “trade” agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is probably coming before Congress in the “lame duck” session following the election. Like NAFTA, this agreement is likely to cause another forced migration northward from Mexico, Central and South American countries as jobs move from those countries to even lower-wage countries like Vietnam.

A report from the AFL-CIO titled “Trading Away Migrant Rights: How the TPP Would Fuel Displacement and Fail Migrant Workers” warns:

The TPP categorically fails to protect workers in the Pacific Rim. As currently drafted, the TPP would increase corporate profits and power while exposing working people to real and predictable harm, including lost jobs and lower wages. Migrant workers already are subject to extreme rights violations in some TPP countries, and this new trade deal would make it even harder for many families to find decent work at home.

The TPP is a recipe for destabilizing communities, perpetuating low wages and stifling labor rights—all of which are factors driving migration.

On a Monday press call discussing the report Celeste Drake, Trade and Globalization Specialist with AFL-CIO, explained how the report shows that TPP is likely to make working families in TPP countries less secure.

The agreement fails workers by offering no transition assistance or safety net for workers who lose their jobs. Mass displacements are not easily remedied which can spur mass migration. Then as economic factors increase migration TPP provides displaced workers with no protections, no labor rights and does not set up a task force to address trafficking and abusive practices by labor recruiters.

Shannon Lederer, AFL-CIO’s Director of Immigration, explained that migration should be a choice not a necessity for survival. Trade should lift all boats, not facilitate a race to the bottom. But TPP would not help to advance these goals. It would in fact make efforts to achieve them harder. She also noted that TPP has a complete lack of protections for migrant workers. Migrant workers face exploitation and trafficking.

The AFL-CIO report explains how TPP will kill jobs in Mexico , Central and South America, forcing people to migrate:

The TPP is poised to disrupt North and Central American supply chains by granting substantial trade benefits, including eventual duty-free access for all TPP countries to the U.S., Mexican and Canadian markets. This will set CAFTA and NAFTA countries up against even lower wage countries in the TPP like Vietnam and Malaysia.

… The inclusion of Vietnam in the TPP is a major concern to apparel workers due to the size of Vietnam’s apparel industry and extensive government subsidies and ownership of large apparel manufacturing facilities. Vietnam is already the second-largest textile and apparel exporter to the United States, shipping more than $11 billion in product to the United States in 2014. This level could surge under the TPP, which would put enormous pressure on Central American manufacturers and workers. Much Central American production could transfer to Vietnam, with its lower wages and authoritarian regime, further degrading Central America’s jobs base and uprooting those dependent on textile jobs.

Likewise, Malaysia’s electronics industry is rife with forced labor, according to the U.S. government’s own reports; yet the TPP would force workers in Mexico’s maquila sector to compete with Malaysian production standards. Loose rules of origin requirements mean that competition not only will come from Vietnam and Malaysia, but also China. Workers in the Americas displaced by these factors may have few options but to emigrate in search of better opportunities in the United States and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, changing economic opportunities associated with increased production and growth in countries like Brunei, Malaysia, Peru and Vietnam could amplify job churn and both “push” and “pull” workers into countries with poor labor rights records.

TPP offers nothing to protect these workers or protect the rest of us from the resulting race to the bottom. But maybe that’s the point.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on October 26, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Court Orders Dominican Republic to Recognize Citizenship

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

0ba2540[1]The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Dominican Republic to reform all national laws blocking the recognition of citizenship for children of undocumented parents born in the country.

The decision, dated Aug. 28, 2014, was made public on Oct. 22, 2014, according to a story today in El Dia, a national newspaper in the Dominican Republic. The sentence orders the country to adopt the necessary measures to ensure no laws or rules deny Dominican nationality to children born in the country to undocumented parents who migrated there.

The decision comes in a case in which 27 people were deported, five of them Haitian children residing in the Dominican Republic and 22 of whom were found to be Dominicans.

“The court found the existence, at least for a period of around one decade after 1990, a systematic pattern of expulsions, including through collective acts of Haitians and people of Haitian descent, which reflects a discriminatory conception,” according to El Dia, quoting the court statement. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is part of the Organization of American States.

In September 2013, the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling that retroactively took away citizenship from individuals unable to prove their parents’ regular migration status.

The ruling would have barred such individuals from any activity that required official identification, including working in the formal sector, attending school, opening a bank account, paying into retirement or social security funds, accessing health services, getting married, traveling or voting, according to an AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center report.

Further, it disproportionately affected individuals of Haitian descent living and working in the Dominican Republic.

Hailing the court decision, Geoff Herzog, Solidarity Center Dominican Republic country program director, said, “the Solidarity Center joins with our union allies and with our allies in the migrant support community in defense of migrant worker rights.

“We support recognition of citizenship for Dominicans of Haitian descent who are blocked from citizenship and therefore, are denied their basic human and labor rights.”

This appeared in AFL-CIO.org on October 27, 2014, and is Originally from Solidarity Center Website. Reprinted with permission. http://www.solidaritycenter.org/content.asp?contentid=1955.

Facing Common Struggles, Domestic Workers Mobilize Across Borders

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Michelle Chen The United States isn’t unique when it comes to political and social crises related to immigration. Migrants in other parts of the world face similar, sometimes much harsher struggles. Even those who are “legal” are often extremely vulnerable to economic exploitation, racial discrimination, and physical and sexual abuse. Abuse and enslavement of migrant and domestic workers from Asia and Africa has become epidemic in the Middle East.  In the wake of the suicide of an abused Ethiopian worker, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, whose story helped galvanize migrant rights campaigns, the issue has moved into the media spotlight lately:

Justice for Alem D

Stories of migrants dying on the job or taking their own lives are not uncommon, underscoring how their lives can be undervalued once they’re swept into a “disposable” household workforce. Migrant women in particular struggle often with abusive employers and sexual harassment.

This video is part of a grassroots anti-harassment media campaign led by women in Lebanon:

Resist Harassment

Some migrant women are organizing and documenting their struggles in their own voices. One Ethiopian domestic worker-turned-filmmaker, Rahel Zegeye, has created a feature film, Beirut, which narrates the wrenching struggles of migrant women in Lebanon. In an interview with Tadias, Zegeye describes a plight that may sound familiar to domestic workers in the United States:

TADIAS: What are the biggest problems that Ethiopian domestic-workers face with their employers?

RZ: There are many. Most common issues include bad treatment, abuse from employers, no rest and no day off. It is also very common that the maids are not paid on time or at all, and that the employers limit their food or let them stay without food. Many employers are very racist and do not treat their workers with respect, dignity or humanity. Sexual harassment and abuse by employers also occurs. For example I know three girls who were made pregnant by their mister and were threatened not to tell their madam, and had to leave the house to go to the hospital to make an abortion.

TADIAS: How true are some of the horror stories we hear and read about in the media? And what can women do to protect themselves from such violence?

RZ: The horror stories are real and they occur. There are many more horror stories that are not reported and written about. There is very little protection for the women coming to work in Lebanon. She can try to communicate with her employer but many times there will be language problems and if the employer is abusive then there is little chance they will listen to her. She can ask them to let her go to the embassy and to return home. If she returns to the agency that brought her here they will not help her, just change employers, which may be for the better or for the worse. If she runs away from her employers she will not have her passport and papers and cannot go back to Ethiopia.

On the eve of May Day 2012, many migrant workers from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sudan and other countries came out from behind closed doors and took to the streets to rally for fair treatment. As with many “guestworkers” in the U.S., one of the critical policy issues tied to the systemic abuse of migrants is the structure of labor sponsorship. As legal guarantors, employers can basically impose legal shackles on workers to make it all but impossible to leave or challenge abuse.

Domestic workers across the United States, many of them women escaping hardship in their home countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, also suffer from poverty, harsh conditions and sexual abuse. And they’ve also used grassroots organizing and media to bring to public light to the injustices they suffer day-to-day on the job.

The Caring Across Generations Campaign—an initiative for home health care workers led by National Domestic Workers Alliance—has shown that here, too, giving workers a media platform to tell their own stories is crucial for educating and mobilizing the public.

Video

Last summer, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, together with migrant workers’ groups from around the world, pushed through the groundbreaking International Labour Organisation Convention for Domestic Workers. The accord codifies basic labor rights for domestic workers, including the right to organize, and sets standards for the treatment of workers in households, like a mandate for a genuine employment contract and immigration relief for victims of abuse.

But the challenge facing globalized concepts of labor rights is that they’re eclipsed by the laws of nation states. Despite campaigns for pro-migrant labor protections on the local and national level, like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights initiative, the absence of strong international standards makes workers everywhere more vulnerable. While multinationals assert corporate sovereignty over national systems, workers see their rights shredded by the sharp borders they’ve traversed.

The irony of the global economy is that the suffering comes from the two extremes of economic mobility. The workers who are stuck in Rust Belt towns, while behemoth manufacturing companies ship job overseas, find their communities devastated by “capital flight.” Meanwhile, wealthy communities absorb droves of migrants who chase the fleeting promise of higher-paying jobs—only to become ensnared in a marginal underclass. Until the workers abandoned by capital, and those held hostage by it in a foreign land—realize that their plights are interlocked, labor remains fractured across divides of language, race and politics.

Still, domestic worker campaigns show that global communications can counter global exploitation. Creative protest through film and media are forming a common language for a dialogue on migrants’ rights, breaking their silence with one collective voice.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

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