Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘migrant women’

Migrant Women Bring Voices to Capital

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Michelle ChenAdareli Ponce is a typical working woman in America, but her work experience is not typically “American.” Even though the products of the labor of women like her are everywhere, her story is invisible to many. As the main provider for her family back in Hidalgo, Mexico, the 31-year-old has spent years slogging away in U.S. chocolate and seafood processing facilities. Migration was her chance to escape the entrenched poverty that ensnares so many young women in her hometown, who she says are often excluded from sustainable job opportunities. But the journey has been fraught with hardship and loneliness.

This week, she and a number of other women who have worked in the U.S. on “guestworker” visas went to Washington, D.C. with the bi-national labor advocacy group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante to testify about migrant women’s struggles.

Because most migrant workers are men, Ponce said in her public testimony, “migrant women are commonly excluded and made invisible in debates about immigration.” But they make up as much as over 40 percent of the low-wage immigrant labor force, according to some estimates, and they face gender-specific problems ranging from sexual harassment on the job to the challenges of transborder motherhood.

If migrant women are missing from the immigration debate, they are also excluded from conversations about U.S. women in the workforce, which tend to dwell on white-collar problems like the gender pay gap and the corporate “glass ceiling.” Migrant women face much more basic problems: how to stave off sexual abuse and cope with long-term separation from their children, which compound issues common to migrants of all genders, like crushing poverty or heat exhaustion and toxic fumes in farm fields.

Ironically, migrant women workers have propelled opportunities for middle-class Americans. Moms who work outside of the home can better achieve work/life balance thanks to options like a migrant nanny at home or frozen seafood dinners processed by the industries fueled by migrant women’s labor.

Facing double discrimination as immigrants and women, female guestworkers like Ponce risk being tracked into especially low-paid, exploitative jobs. In this racket, everyone else gets a cut:international labor recruiters who act as shady brokers of coveted visa jobs; U.S. employers who bring in these workers to serve as cheap, “disposable” labor, and big corporations like Walmart that earn fat profits at the expense of underpaid migrants in subcontracted supply chains.

As Working In These Times has reported before, many guestworkers are near-powerless to challenge bosses over labor violations. The recent case of mass wage theft of Jamaican contract cleaning workers in Florida shows how “legal” work authorization still leaves ample opportunity for employers to violate workers’ rights and, due to fears of deportation, leaves many with little legal recourse.
Women in Hidalgo generally are willing to endure the hardship of temporary work in the U.S. Ponce says, because it’s still seen as a better opportunity than any job available to them in their community. Yet Ponce understands why many other migrant women work undocumented. Despite the enormous risks—including sexual violence on the migrant trail, and fraud and wage theft by employers—they are at least not legally indentured to a single employer or forced to return home after a set time.
Speaking through an interpreter during her visit to D.C., Ponce tells Working In These Times that for immigrant mothers, especially parents, the emotional pain of familial separation can rival economic hardships. “Women are the core of the family… In many Mexican homes, mother is also [taking the role of] the father of those children. [Migrant women] experience isolation of being far away from family, and on top of that they have to put up with the mistreatment that they suffer.” Ponce does not have children herself, but sends money home to support her sisters.
But the workers struggling within this system are finding ways to organize. Ponce now serves as an advocate with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, which campaigns in both the U.S. and Mexico for immigration reform that would expand the rights of guestworkers in many low-wage industries.
The Senate immigration reform bill proposed earlier this year respoded to some of the demands of pro-migrant advocates by offering a complex scheme to allow some guestworkers and undocumented migrants an opportunity to obtain legal residency status, with the primary interest of sating labor market demand. That would give the growing population of guestworkers a pathway to settle here with their families.
At the same time, lawmakers proposed major cuts to family reunification visas, curtailing one of the few channels of legal migration outside of the guestworker system—crossing over through the sponsorship of family members already permanently settled in the U.S. The Senate would scrap reunification visas for siblings and institute a new, streamlined visa system that would score an immigrant’s eligibility based on various criteria, such as educational attainment.

Advocates are pushing for preservation of the family reunification system and a more open, humanitarian-based legalization process. Many support the bill’s provisions to expand immigrant’ labor rights, including reforms to curb employer abuses of the guestworker system. But even with those reforms, perilous barriers to family reunification would remain. And for undocumented workers, the process for petitioning for legalization could take well over a decade and involve strict employment requirements and fines, which might foreclose opportunities for women to qualifyyet another gender barrier to setting here and reuniting with family. At the end of the day, whether they start out with papers or not, a workers’ family could take half a generation to become whole again.

That’s too long to wait for the mothers, sisters and daughters who have for years toiled in the U.S. for their families, yet no longer know what their children look like. There’s no provision in the reform bill that resolves the pain of that longing. There are only voices like Ponce’s, which have no grand legislative solutions—just an appeal for dignity in return for all they’ve given up.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on October 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

Terror in the Fields: Migrant Women Face Sexual Violence on the Job

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Michelle Chen

There aren’t many jobs in the United States that are tougher than farmwork-—picking crops under a sweltering sun, earning just enough to survive, jumping from one unstable seasonal job to another. But the job is especially unbearable if you have to work yourself to exhaustion all day under the watch of the man who raped you.

There have over the years been numerous reports of widespread sexual abuse of women farmworkers-—everything from being called demeaning names by supervisors to brutal sexual assault. Many of the victims suffer in silence, cut off from law enforcement and social services and fearful of losing their jobs if they come forward to authorities, according to a report on sexual violence in agricultural work by Human Rights Watch.

The report, based on dozens of interviews with survivors and advocates, outlines the multiple barriers to justice that women face-—not just institutional sexism but also crippling poverty and discrimination in law enforcement. Women may feel they have little choice but to suffer humiliating treatment and abuse in order to support their families. The consequences of reporting sexual violence can be devastating for the whole household, because the boss might fire both the victim and the family members who work alongside her.

Women make up a sizable minority in a male-dominated agricultural workforce. The economic oppression that afflicts the farmworker population generally is exacerbated by a climate of gender oppression, in which women are viewed as sexual objects, and victims of abuse may face devastating social stigma even from their own community.  Single women, indigenous, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers are especially at risk, according to HRW researchers.

The testimonial of Angela G. describes how her abuse was enforced by layers of silence and impunity ingrained in the workplace culture:

In her experience, women in general were not valued by the supervisors and the foremen, but Angela reported that because she did not have a partner, she was singled out for abuse. “I was called a dyke; they said I was a lesbian…. [The supervisor] and the foreman would laugh.” She was afraid to say anything because others who had complained of sexual harassment had been fired immediately. But to listen in silence day after day caused her a great deal of pain…

Angela stayed on, however, because she wanted to get promoted, earn a higher salary, and be better able to support her family. And then one day, a supervisor asked her to come over to his house to pick up some boxes. Angela reported that after she entered the house, he raped her.

Angela said she felt powerless: “For me, it felt like an eternity. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said I should remember that it’s because of him that I have this job, and if I say anything, I’ll lose my job…. I was afraid to call the police, to do anything. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was completely blocked off.”

No one knows how often this scene is repeated every day on the vast industrial farms that have drawn hundreds of thousands of migrants. But since the migrant farm workforce is the product of federal labor, food and immigration policies, the government is at least complicit in, if not at the crux of, this system of exploitation.

Although the law should theoretically protect all women from such abuse, immigrant workers are deterred from reporting work-related sexual violence because the law tends to criminalize them rather than treat them as survivors deserving of justice. As federal and state authorities have focused on arresting and deporting the undocumented, immigrant communities have every reason to see police as a source of terror, not protection.

Although special immigration relief known as the U-Visa is available to victims of crime, advocates are concerned that the qualifications for the visa are too stringent for people who are dealing with trauma and economic hardship. Access to counseling and other services is also severely constrained by language and culture barriers that make it hard for social agencies to build trust with underserved communities.

At the same time, sexual victimization is part of a continuum of exploitation, and as long as farmworkers, whether they’re here legally or not, are excluded from equal labor and civil rights, suffering in all forms will remain an intrinsic part of the agricultural system. Grace Meng, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program who authored the report, said that while farmworkers face unique threats on the job, “a lot of the factors that make them vulnerable are true of unauthorized immigrant workers in a lot of industries.” Although special remedies like the U-Visa might help address individual violations, she said, “We think that the most practical and effective way to deal with the vulnerability of these workers and this population to crime and other abuses is to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

It should be no surprise that on America’s farms, so many women are treated as less than human, since not even the government sees them as worthy of respect under the law.

An earlier version of this article was published on Alternet.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 28, 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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