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Modern-day Braceros: The United States has 450,000 guestworkers in low-wage jobs and doesn’t need more

Friday, March 31st, 2017

On César Chávez Day, lost in all the news about the Trump administration’s criminalization and scapegoating of immigrants and attempts to withhold federal funds from cities with policies that protect immigrants, are the 450,000 low-wage-earning migrant workers employed in the United States through the H-2A, H-2B, and J-1 visa temporary foreign worker programs. Many of the workers in these temporary visa programs are in a precarious situation and vulnerable to abuse and retaliation at the hands of employers and their agents.

These “guestworkers” often arrive in the United States in debt, and are tied to and controlled by their employers. Research shows guestworkers are often paid lower wages than similarly situated U.S. workers, and earn wages similar to those of undocumented immigrant workers. This is reminiscent of the Bracero Program—a large guestworker program in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s that admitted hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers to work temporarily on U.S. farms and in other low-wage occupations—and which César Chávez fought against. Chávez knew that exploited, indentured, and underpaid workers would degrade labor standards for all workers in the United States, including immigrants. After scandals, political pressure, and President John F. Kennedy campaigning against it, the program was terminated in 1964.

Sadly, America has not learned its lesson. The United States is repeating an historical mistake, once again admitting large numbers of guestworkers in low-wage occupations. With the possibility looming that the Trump administration will reduce enforcement and oversight in guestworker programs—which will be further exacerbated if Trump’s proposed 21 percent budget cuts to the Department of Labor (DOL) are enacted—the United States may once again face scandals like the one where the bodies of guestworkers who died in a traffic accident were not immediately claimed, because farm labor contractors and agricultural growers argued over who their employer was.

A snapshot of today’s low-wage guestworker programs

The H-2A program allows employers to hire workers from abroad for agricultural jobs that normally last less than one year, including picking crops and sheepherding. There is no numerical limit on H-2A visas, and in recent years, the H-2A program has grown sharply, doubling over the past five years to 134,000 workers, and accounting for nearly 10 percent of the crop labor force.

H-2B workers are employed in seasonal (nine months or less) low-wage nonagricultural jobs like landscaping, forestry, food processing, hospitality, and construction. There is an annual numerical limit of 66,000, but workers often stay longer than one year or have their stay extended. Despite the cap on the H-2B program, a “returning worker exemption” allowed 85,000 new visas to be issued in 2016.

The J-1 visa is part of the Exchange Visitor Program, a cultural exchange program run by the State Department that has 14 different J-1 programs, including programs that permit Fulbright Scholars to come to the United States, but also five de facto low-wage guestworker programs. J-1 workers in low-wage occupations are au pairs, camp counselors, maids and housekeepers, lifeguards, and staff restaurants, ice cream shops and amusement parks and national parks like Yellowstone. Only one of the five programs is numerically limited: the Summer Work Travel program is capped at 109,000 per year.

Numerous media reports and legal proceedings have documented how H-2A, H-2B, and J-1 guestworkers are treated poorly. For example, Buzzfeed News asked whether H-2A and H-2B are “The New American Slavery?” and Politico Magazine reported this week that the State Department covered up and lied about thousands of complaints received from J-1 workers. Immigrant worker advocates have been sounding the alarm bells about all three programs for years, but the employers who hire guestworkers continue to lobby for more visas and fewer rules that protect workers.

So, how many workers are employed in these three programs? Calculating the number of workers is not straightforward, and the government does not publish reliable data by visa. Using the same methodology I developed in this report, I estimate in Table 1 below that there were over 270,000 low-wage workers employed in the H-2A and H-2B programs in 2016.

 
Table 2 shows that the number of J-1 workers in low-wage occupations was 167,960 in 2015, and the number in 2016 was likely similar (2016 data on J-1 are not available).

Modern-day low-wage guestworker programs larger than Bracero at its peak

The grand total of guestworkers employed in low-wage occupations in all three programs in 2016 is 438,190 (Table 3), close to half a million, but many were not employed in the United States for the entire year. On average, H-2A workers were in jobs certified to last for seven months, more than half of the H-2B workers counted were employed for the entire year, and most J-1 workers counted were employed for four months, but one-third worked for the entire year.

Comparable estimates for the number of temporary Bracero workers are difficult to come by. The most commonly cited statistic is that there were almost 450,000 Braceros “admitted” in the peak year of 1956, meaning that this many workers authorized through the Bracero program entered the United States. However, using admissions to count unique workers, as many reports have done, is misleading. For example, the number of H-2A workers admitted in 2015 was more than 2.5 times the number of visas (a proxy for the number of workers) issued that year, in part because some H-2A workers live in Mexico and commute daily to jobs in the Arizona and California deserts, generating an individual, counted admission each time they enter the United States.

A Bracero worker’s job could last from six weeks to six months, also making it difficult to count the actual number of workers. To get a better measure of how many Bracero workers there were and what their impact was on the labor market, the DOL calculated the average annual number of Bracero workers, generating an estimate of full-time equivalent workers. The table below, from a 1973 study, shows 125,700 full-time equivalent (FTE) Bracero workers in 1956, the peak year for admissions, suggesting a ratio of 3.5 Bracero admissions per FTE job. The peak year for FTE Braceros was in 1959, at 135,900. (Ignore the number of “immigrants” below, which represents Mexican nationals who became permanent residents in those years.)

A similar “annual average” calculation of temporary, low-wage foreign workers present in the United States in 2016 would be lower than 438,000; but how much lower depends on the length of time that each individual worked in the United States. However, no matter how you count, there’s no question that there are more low-wage guestworkers today than there were Bracero guestworkers in the peak year for either Bracero admissions or FTE workers.

Lobbying blitz around guestworker programs is already underway, and will be exacerbated by the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement

Through an executive order, President Trump has already redefined the priorities for deportation so broadly that nearly every unauthorized immigrant is now considered a priority for detection and removal, and his administration is expected to step up enforcement against unauthorized migration on the southern U.S. border and at worksites within the interior of the United States. This will impact the five percent of the U.S. labor force that is comprised of unauthorized immigrant workers. Two-thirds of the entire unauthorized population has lived in the United States for at least 10 years, and unauthorized migration over the Mexico-U.S. border is at historically low levels, which means the Trump administration will mostly be trying to remove long-term residents who are integrated into the United States through employment and family ties.

If a significant number of unauthorized immigrants are removed and fewer new workers arrive, employers are likely to request more guestworkers, particularly in agriculture, landscaping, hospitality, and construction. Employers seeking new workers are likely to pressure the Trump administration and Congress to create new temporary foreign worker programs and/or expand the current programs, as well as to loosen and curb the enforcement of rules that protect migrant and U.S. workers. Specifically, employers are pressing Congress to eliminate the requirement to provide housing for H-2A workers and they want to remove the cap on H-2B visas.

This corporate lobbying blitz has already gotten underway, as many low-wage employers have become addicted to having indentured employees who can’t complain or legally search for a better U.S. job. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal editorial board called for more guestworkers in low-wage jobs, warning of a “growing labor shortage” in agriculture and construction. But they failed to mention that the earnings of most farmworkers are still extremely low and that the latest JOLTS data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show there are three unemployed construction workers for every job opening—not exactly signs of a dire shortage.

Both Democrats and Republicans seem to have a soft spot for employers seeking low-wage guestworkers. At a recent hearing, Republican Governor Sonny Perdue and Democratic Senator Kristen Gillibrand discussed and described the H-2A program as too “cumbersome” for farm employers, even though there is no limit on the number of H-2A workers they can hire and DOL has processed 99 percent of applications in a timely way in 2017. Low-wage nonfarm employers persuaded 32 legislators to sign a bipartisan letterasking the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to audit the H-2B program in an effort to build support to expand the program (by exempting returning workers from the 66,000 a year cap). Republican-sponsored legislation to do just that—exempt returning H-2B workers from the annual cap—was introduced in the House this month, with two Democratic co-sponsors.

Does the United States need to expand its modern-day Bracero programs?

Changing and loosening the rules in work visa programs could lead to a quick doubling of the number of low-wage guestworkers in the United States. Is one million low-paid, exploitable, indentured workers—who have no path to lawful permanent residence and citizenship—what the U.S. economy needs? César Chávez would say, “No!” Migrants who come to the United States and contribute to the economy should be afforded civil, human, and labor rights, and a chance to become American.

Furthermore, the number of jobs for workers with a high school degree or less has not yet recovered to the pre-recession levels of late 2007, and wages for less-educated workers have stagnated. In other words, labor market indicators do not suggest the United States needs more low-wage guestworkers. Then why are employers and Congress fixated on this? Changing the low-wage labor market in this manner deserves a fully informed public debate and Congress should be held accountable. Any expansion of low-wage guestworker programs should not occur through deregulation at the federal agency level or via must-pass omnibus appropriations legislation, as has occurred time and time again over the last decade.

This article was originally posted at EPI.org on March 31, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Daniel Costa has been director of immigration law and policy research since 2013, having joined EPI in 2010 as an immigration policy analyst. An attorney, his current areas of research include a wide range of labor migration issues, including the management of temporary foreign worker programs, both high- and less-skilled migration, immigrant workers’ rights, and forced migration, including refugee and asylum issues and the global migration crisis.

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.

McDonald’s Urges Franchises to Open on Christmas Day … Without Overtime Pay

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Mark E. Andersen

In November McDonald’s saw a 2.5 percent increase in November sales. This is after the fast food giant saw a decrease in sales of 2.2 percent in October. So why was there increase in sales? Was the pork-like substitute McRib back? Was there a shortage of Ore-Ida french fries in your local grocer’s freezer causing a run on McDonald’s across the country?

Nope, none of the above; the corporate overlords at McDonald’s urged franchisees to be open on Thanksgiving day, a day that most franchise stores are closed. A Nov. 8 memo from McDonald’s USA Chief Operating Officer Jim Johannesen stated,

“Starting with Thanksgiving, ensure your restaurants are open throughout the holidays. Our largest holiday opportunity as a system is Christmas Day. Last year, [company-operated] restaurants that opened on Christmas averaged $5,500 in sales.”

On Dec. 12 Mr. Johannesen doubled down and sent out another memo to franchise owners stating that average sales for company-owned restaurants, which compose about 10 percent of its system, were “more than $6,000” this Thanksgiving. That adds up to be about $36 million in extra sales.

So with all those extra sales one must ask if employees are reaping any benefits from being open on the holidays. The answer is dependent on the franchise owner; however, in the case of company owned stores the answer is a big fat no. According to McDonald’s spokesperson Heather Oldani, “when our company-owned restaurants are open on the holidays, the staff voluntarily sign up to work. There is no regular overtime pay.”

It is bad enough that McDonald’s pays crap wages but then they turn around and refuse to pay overtime for employees who volunteer to give up their holidays so that McDonald’s can make several million dollars. I am also willing to bet that most staff does not readily volunteer to work on Christmas day. This just gives me one more reason to not eat at the Golden Arches.

This post was originally posted on December 18, 2012 at The Daily Kos. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mark E. Andersen is a 44 year old veteran, lifelong Progressive Democrat, Rabid Packer fan, Single Dad, Part-time Grad Student, and Full-time IS worker. Find me on facebook my page is “Kodiak54 (Mark Andersen)”

NLRB Chairman: New Penalties Needed for Union-Busting of Undocumented Workers

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

NEW YORK CITYNational Labor Relations Board Chairman Mark Pearce says his agency could pursue new remedies to punish employers who retaliate against undocumented immigrants for organizing. Last year Pearce interpreted a 2002 Supreme Court decision to rule out back pay as a remedy in such cases, limiting the NLRB’s options of financial penalties.

Interviewed Friday by Working In These Times, Pearce called the tension between immigration law and labor law “extremely frustrating,” and the tools available for protecting undocumented workers against employer crimes “insufficient.”

“The concept of ‘made whole’ by us needs to be examined,” said Pearce, referring to a legal guideline for NLRB remedies. “Perhaps there are things within that concept that we can utilize. Now I can’t articulate what they are, because we’ve got to consider it.”

Pearce made these comments following a forum hosted by Cornell University’s ILR School. In his remarks to the assembled attorneys, Pearce said he “had angst over” his ruling in the NLRB’s Mezonos Maven Bakery case last year. In that 3-0 decision, the NLRB found that a bakery that fired a group of workers who had collectively complained about a supervisor could not be required to pay them back pay, because they were undocumented.

The Mezonos decision cited the US Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, which overturned an NLRB ruling granting back pay to an undocumented worker who was fired after trying to form a union (the NLRB is tasked with enforcing and interpreting private-sector labor law, but federal courts have the power to overturn the NLRB). Writing for a 5-4 majority, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that “awarding back pay in a case like this not only trivializes the immigration laws, it also condones and encourages future violations.”

At Friday’s forum, Pearce said that the Hoffman decision had forced him to deny back pay in Mezonos and “continues to create that problem where an employer could get away scot-free” with firing undocumented union supporters. Pearce said he had “struggled with the tension between the National Labor Relations Act, immigration law, and the rights of undocumented workers.” While the NLRB can still use non-economic remedies in such a situation, like requiring a company to post a notice saying it will comply with the law in the future, Pearce said that “seems a little empty” without a financial cost attached.

After the forum, Pearce told Working In These Times that the tension he’d identified could be resolved if a future Supreme Court case offers the NLRB “a more promising, or a more significant remedy to be applied for discriminatees who happen to be undocumented. But otherwise, it would probably have to take a change in the law.”

In the meantime, said Pearce, “the board has a certain degree of discretion with respect to the remedies.” He noted that the NLRB is legally empowered to “make whole” workers who are illegally punished or discriminated against, but is barred from assessing punitive damages against employers. That means that financial penalties against companies generally come in the form of back paywhich Mezonos took off the table for undocumented workers. “So exploration would have to be had,” said Pearce, “as to the full parameters of [the ‘made whole’] concept, to see whether or not a remedy could be fleshed out [for] those kinds of violations.”

Such a move “would be significant,” said Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action. “Because under the current structure, employers basically get a free bite at the apple. They can violate the law with impunity.”

Interviewed Saturday by phone, Avendaño disputed Pearce’s view that the Supreme Court’s Hoffman ruling required the NLRB to deny back pay in Mezonos. She said that a lower-level NLRB judge had been right to find that Hoffman didn’t apply in Mezonos, because in Hoffman it was the undocumented worker that had been proven to have violated immigration law, and in Mezonos it was the employer. Avendaño, who was among the attorneys arguing for back pay in Mezonos, said she hopes the second circuit court will reject the NLRB’s Mezonos reasoning and send the case back for a new ruling.

But Avendaño echoed Pearce’s criticism of Hoffman, which she said “has a chilling effect” on undocumented immigrants seeking to organize at work. Ultimately, she said, new legislation will be necessary to restore such workers’ rights, perhaps as part of a broader immigration reform.

Still, Avendaño welcomed the NLRB Chairman’s comments about the possibility of other remedies under current law. Given that the law bars punitive damages, and Hoffman restricts back pay awards to workers, Avendaño said, “one idea that advocates haveand the legal basis for this is soundis that there could be a fund established, where employers would still have to pay the back pay, but it would go into the fund, not directly to the worker.”

Avendaño said such a “special remedy” would be “less than ideal,” but would be an improvement over the status quo, where employers face a “perverse incentive … to just violate the immigration law, and then violate the [National Labor Relations Act], and have no responsibility for it.”

If a fitting test case reaches the NLRB, said Pearce, “We would have to see whether the board has that kind of authority, or is there something that causes us to feel that we are able to create an exception to the standard remedy.” Avendaño said the AFL-CIO hopes that will be the case: “If there was an opportunity, and we may have one soon, then we certainly are going to advance that argument.”

This article was originally posted on In these Times on October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

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.

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.

Supreme Court’s E-Verify Decision Devastating for Employers, Immigrant Workers

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

kari-lydersenImmigrants rights advocates and employers, including farmers, are lashing out at the Supreme Court’s May 26 decision upholding Arizona’s right to demand employers use the controversial e-Verify system, which is meant to confirm whether someone is in the country legally.

The decision also allowed Arizona to continue the so-called “business death penalty,” which entails denying a business license to employers found guilty more than once of violating a 2007 law against hiring undocumented workers.

The e-Verify system has been widely criticized for errors, including flagging legal and native-born residents as undocumented. That’s among the reasons Illinois sought to ban its use by private employers. A federal court shot down those efforts, but the Illinois legislature did pass a state law trying to safeguard against the misuse of the system.

All employers with federal contracts are required to use E-Verify, and Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith is among those pushing to make it mandatory nationally.

Immigrants rights groups are allied with employers – even those that they allege exploit undocumented immigrants – in stridently opposing mandatory e-Verify use. The Supreme Court decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Chamber of Commerce opposing Arizona’s law. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups also sued unsuccessfully over the mandate that E-Verify be used by federal contractors. Florida has proposed a bill similar to Arizona’s regarding E-Verify. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce opposes it.

Agricultural employers and immigrants rights groups point out that the nation’s guest worker program and overall immigration system are so badly broken that agricultural growers will simply not be able to find the needed employees especially during harvest times if they really are barred from hiring undocumented workers.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the group America’s Voice Education Fund, said in a press release:

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling is a dagger in the heart of Arizona agriculture.  If this type of law spreads nationwide, we will essentially deport the entire agriculture industry—including jobs held by Americans—and be forced to import more of our nation’s food supply. Passing a mandatory E-Verify law without comprehensive immigration reform will kill American jobs and farms, burden small businesses, reduce tax revenue, and drive undocumented workers further underground.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made similar points in an op-ed:

As Secretary of Agriculture I have met farmers and ranchers all over the country who worry that our immigration system is broken. They are unable to find the necessary number of farmworkers and sometimes struggle to verify their work authorization papers – all while wondering if they’ll have enough help for their next harvest.

And while some American citizens step up and take these jobs, the truth is that even when farmers make their best efforts to recruit a domestic work force, few citizens express interest, and even fewer show up to spend long hours laboring in the hot sun.

In a twist on the misguided idea that immigrants “steal” American jobs, Vilsack described immigrant farm workers essentially protecting U.S. jobs through their crucial role on U.S. farms:

If American agriculture lost access to adequate farm labor, it could cost the industry as much as $9 billion each year. Already, some American producers are opening up operations in Mexico. So we must take action to prevent the further outsourcing of farm-related jobs.

Meanwhile, the Bay Citizen nonprofit news outlet described how lucrative wineries in Napa Valley, Calif., have found it in their own self-interest to treat undocumented workers fairly, rather than paying them as little as possible or sometimes not at all as is often the case in agriculture and other industries that hire large numbers of undocumented workers.

Emmy-winning producer Scott James reported:

Without migrant labor, most of it from Mexico, the wine producers in Napa would be hard pressed to fill a carafe, much less the valley’s nine million annual cases. Experts estimate that 8,000 to 12,000 illegal migrants reside (often seasonally) in Napa, although the number is impossible to confirm.

Ten years ago, they could be found living in the woods in makeshift camps, sleeping on fetid mattresses and drinking from dirty streams. Today they receive subsidized housing, or can reside in three tidy dormitory complexes near St. Helena and Yountville where up to 180 workers pay $12 a day for room and board.

This Blog Originally appeared in These Working Times on May 30, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

After the Crisis, Rise of Worker Discrimination Is Breathtaking

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

It’s bad enough that the global financial crisis has put millions of people out of work and trashed the future of the ranks of workers everywhere. But, let’s take a moment to consider an undercurrent of the economic crisis, fanned by fear, stupidity and the relentless drive to cut government (oh, that comes under stupidity so please excuse the redundancy): the rise in all forms of discrimination.

I just read a very sobering just-released report from the International Labour Organization, “Equality at work: The Continuing Challenge.” Yeah, it may not be as compelling as some declaration by Donald Trump or Michelle Bachmann (since they say something new every time) but it’s worth reading…The report points out that a lot of progress is being made around the world combating discrimination of all forms.

A migrant farm worker from Mexico holds his time card to be scanned while working at Grant Family Farms on September 3, 2010, in Wellington, Colo.   (Photo John Moore/Getty Images)

A migrant farm worker from Mexico holds his time card to be scanned while working at Grant Family Farms on September 3, 2010, in Wellington, Colo. (Photo John Moore/Getty Images)

But, the economic crisis has set this effort back. Let’s start with migrant workers:

Migrant workers have been particularly affected by the crisis, with more situations of discrimination in access to employment and migration opportunities, increased xenophobia and violence, and worsened conditions of work, among other factors. These have added to the existing situations of inequality and discrimination against migrant workers.

There was a time when bad times in one country meant that migrant workers returned home. But, they can’t now–because the crisis has swept the globe and there isn’t a lot to go home to.

Which is why it is a national disgrace that fair and serious immigration reform has gone nowhere. What we’ve done is left millions of people here without protections, vulnerable to employers who are ready to exploit workers–and vulnerable to racist politicians who want to exploit people for political gain.

Women are bearing the brunt of the crisis:

A United Nations report indicates that the current crisis is following a similar pattern, partly as a result of attitudes that give preference to male employment by promoting the image of the male breadwinner. When jobs are scarce, women encounter tougher competition in access to jobs, increasing the influence of existing and persistent barriers to their employment.

This took my breathe away. I challenge you not to want to weep:

Recent data show that 829 million people living in poverty in the world are women, compared to 522 million men.With women’s wages equal to only 70 to 90 per cent of men’s for work of equal value, non-discrimination in remuneration should be a core component of measures aimed at both gender equality and reducing poverty.[emphasis added]

Repeat this: 1.3 billion people living in poverty. While the Fortune 500 registered huge profits and the U.S. has 413 billionaires worth $1.5 trillion.

And it isn’t just the lack of money in your pocket:

Living in poverty is not only about low incomes. It also means a vicious cycle of diminished health, reduced working capacity, bad working and living conditions, low productivity and reduced life expectancy. Combined with illiteracy, hunger, child labour and early parenthood, the pervasive effect of poverty can be transferred from parents to their children.

As for the foolish obsession over the deficit and debt “crisis”, let’s be blunt: those people who are advocating deep cuts in government spending are racist, sexist and discriminatory. Why:

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, global attention has increasingly been paid to reducing large budget deficits and public debts in many countries. Yet many have urged caution in formulating fiscal consolidation policies – defined by tax increases and cuts in government spending – since the measures involved could jeopardize recovery efforts, propel countries into deeper recession and exacerbate inequalities in the workforce. A joint ILO–IMF paper in 2010 warned that a premature consolidation push could damage macroeconomic growth and subsequently lead to even larger deficits and debts….

Certain groups may be particularly susceptible to the bulk of the effects of fiscal consolidation measures, as austerity policies in many countries could take the form of cuts in the welfare programmes that assist lower-income workers in access to employmentas well as direct job cuts. [emphasis added]

Look, I don’t expect Paul Ryan et al. to understand discrimination. But, it would be nice if Democrats did–and stopped promoting the phony debt and deficit “crisis” mantra.

The report digs into a whole raft of discrimination–against people with HIV, older people–and it’s a chilling story.

The bottom line: what the financial and political elites did was not just crash an entire global economic system. They made the world a meaner, nastier, uglier place to live in. My new bumper sticker: Raj Needs Cellmates.

This post originally appeared at Working Life, Jonathan Tasini’s blog.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

Migrant Refugees Swept into Revolutions in Libya and Bahrain

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Michelle ChenOver the past several weeks, the images emerging from the Middle East and North Africa have shocked and awed Western audiences, who had never seen, or bothered to notice, the massive potential of people power to challenge the rule of ossified dictators.

But the protest movements across the region have also shed light on less glorious struggles that pervade stratified Arab societies. If the young protesters represent the rise of civil society forces, the imported migrant laborers caught in the crossfire reflect the often-hidden economic and ethnic dimensions to the region’s power struggles.

On the besieged borders of Libya and in the ghettoized neighborhoods of Bahrain, migrants have found themselves in the peculiar position of being refugees from countries that were always alien to them. As the fighting escalated in Libya last week, the aid organization BRAC reported on migrants desperate to flee the country:

Nearly 70,000 Bangladeshi nationals were residing in Libya as migrant workers when violence erupted last month. As the conflict intensified, thousands fled to neighboring countries, where they face congested borders and overcrowded refugee camps and airports. Thus far, only 20,000 migrants have been able to return to Bangladesh – most of them heavily in debt and with no ready means of earning a living.

After leaving his workplace in the western Libyan town of Zawiyah, 28 year-old Bangladeshi migrant steelworker Mohammed Nienn joined mounting crowds at the Tunisian border at a displaced persons camp known as Choucha. Having languished for over a week in hopes of catching a flight out, he told the UN news service:

”My family tells me to get home as quickly as possible… But it’s not as simple as that. There are so many Bangladeshis here. The wait to go to the airport is quite long.”

Mohamed, a Somali from Mogadishu, spoke to the constant state of dispossession that follows refugees who go from one warzone to the next:

Every day I watch people board buses to the airport….But I’m not envious; their situation is just very different to mine. Even if I was offered the chance to go back to Somalia, I wouldn’t want to anyway. I’m just waiting to find out where I will end up.

Thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers who recently crossed into Tunisia from Libya walk to a United Nations displacement camp March 04, 2011 in Ras Jdir, Tunisia. Tens of thousands of guest workers from Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh and other countries are fleeing to the border of Tunisia to escape the violence.   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers who recently crossed into Tunisia from Libya walk to a United Nations displacement camp March 04, 2011 in Ras Jdir, Tunisia. Tens of thousands of guest workers from Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh and other countries are fleeing to the border of Tunisia to escape the violence. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

International authorities counted some 17,000 refugees at Choucha, “10,000 from Bangladesh and the remaining 7,000 mostly from sub-Saharan African countries.” Repatriation efforts have varied widely, with some countries coordinating efforts to bring nationals home, while others have no home to return to—as in the case of Somalis and Palestinians who settled in Libya when it was relatively safe.

The plight of migrants is just one facet of the humanitarian crisis, but they embody the challenges to advancing a revolution in the face of social polarization and cultural dissonance. Even within Choucha, Bangladeshi and African refugees began to self-segregate as different groups struggled to make the most of tight supplies and food rations.

In Bahrain, where protests have been viciously crushed by government and Saudi forces, the country’s oil wealth is filtered along sectarian and class lines.. At the base of the stratified social structure are Bangladeshi immigrants, working in low-wage sectors like construction. According to Mother Jones, the tiny country is tightly parceled: “Sunni Muslims, westerners, Shiite Muslims, and South Asian migrant workers (who are not citizens but constitute almost half of Bahrain’s population) generally live in separate neighborhoods.”

Migrant workers are among the most vulnerable in the current political turbulence. Indeed,  long before the protests the human rights situation for migrants in Bahrain was already dire, in some ways anticipating the terror  the monarch has now unleashed on its own citizenry.

For all the promise of democratic change washing over many Arab countries, many underlying social rifts have ruptured–a telling reminder that even a rebellion from the “right side of history” can betray regressive views that often stew under the grip of dictatorship.

Black Africans in Libya (as opposed to ethnic Arabs), who have long suffered unequal treatment as migrants, have reportedly been brutally targeted on the suspicion that they are foreign mercenaries hired by Gaddafi to suppress protests.

Black Agenda Report commentator Glen Ford rounded up reports on racial violence in Libya, and drew a sobering reflection on the emergent “Arab re-awakening”:

In the turmoil, what is also re-awakened – or never really dormant – is a “problematic” form of anti-black racism that appears, at least in some parts of the North African Maghreb, endemic and woven into the fabric of Arab nationalism.

The (re)emergence of Arab nationalism nevertheless represents a catastrophe for U.S. imperialism, which abhors all nationalisms except its own as it seeks to bend every national aspiration to the will of capital and its war machinery. However, the racism that is clearly manifest in Libya’s current dynamic is also a huge impediment to pan-African solidarity, inviting new waves of imperial mischief on the continent. On that score, we should have no illusions.

In reality, the migrants who take the dirtiest jobs in these oil-rich nations have a lot in common with the revolutionaries risking everything for emancipation. As Mohamed the Somali refugee said, they’re all waiting to find out where they will end up. A parallel form of dislocation stirred native-born Bahrainis and Libyans to rise up and reclaim their country from tyranny.

The rebellions don’t merely call for regime change or constitutional reform; people seek the sovereignty and dignity that have long been denied to them. Though frequently ignored in nationalist political clashes, migrants share in this struggle too, whether or not they see themselves as part of the civil conflict. They’re pitted against the dictatorship of global capital that subsumed their repressive host countries. Both migrants and citizens alike have endured wholesale disenfranchisement—the disempowerment that was first expressed by the defining act of protest that touched off the “Arab spring”: the self-annihilation of a desperate young worker in Tunis.

Some migrants are raising their voices as stakeholders in political conflicts as well. A group of Filipino migrant workers with the advocacy group Migrante-Middle Eas has denounced the air-strikes on Libya as “done in bad faith just to pursue their own self-serving geopolitical and economic agenda in Libya and the entire Middle East and North African region.”

Refugees from America’s former colony should know: this latest tide of displacement is just more proof that in an age of fluid borders and global capital, real revolution is anchored in the dignity of all workers, wherever they’ve come from, and wherever they’re going.

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.

This blog originally appeared In These Times on March 21, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert Signs Immigration Bills, Distances State From Arizona Approach

Monday, March 21st, 2011

zz_andrea_nill-e1291085868161On March 15th, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed off on a bundle of four immigration bills which includes proposals that were specifically introduced as proactive alternatives to Arizona’s harsh immigration law. One of the measures would allow undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements to carry a state-issued guest worker permit. A separate bill would create a migrant worker partnership with Mexico. Another piece of approved legislation will allow Utahns to sponsor migrants wanting to work or study in the state.

GOP delegate coordinators have dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to pushing back against the proposal with robo-calls and a petition. “As GOP delegates, we support the governor and everything he’s done up until now,” said Brandon Beckham, a Utah County GOP delegate who opposes guest worker and sponsorship proposals. “If he signs this bill, I don’t think he’s going to muster enough delegate support to make it past convention.” On the other side of the spectrum, some labor advocates worry that the guest worker permits will “give employers cheap labor without providing additional protections for workers or a path to citizenship.” “It gives illegal immigrants false hope because it makes them think they could become legal,” Ana Avendano of the AFL-CIO said. “But they’re still illegal, and could be deported.”

Gary Herbert

Gary Herbert

Meanwhile, several Latinos in Utah have been organizing against the other bill that Herbert signed into law today — HB-497. The legislation is a “watered down” version of Arizona SB-1070 that gives Utah police officers the authority to investigate a person’s immigration status if they’re suspected of felony or misdemeanor crimes.

Litigation has been threatened by both sides — immigration restrictionists who argue that the guestworker and sponsorship bills violate federal law and immigration advocates who say that the enforcement-only bill is unconstitutional. While it’s pretty monumental that such a conservative state has enacted a set of proposals that aren’t just aimed at making life completely miserable for undocumented immigrants, both sides of the debate are going to have a tough time arguing that the bill they oppose is preempted by federal law while maintaining that the one that they support is not.

Yet, maybe that’s the whole point. Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups (R) told the Salt Lake Tribune that the signing of the bills is “putting the federal government on notice.” “They’ve been on the sidelines way too long,” Herbert said. “They need to get in the game.” In fact, state officials are reportedly talking with the White House and congressional officials about using the “Utah Solution” as a model for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. The laws won’t go into effect for another two years. The U.S. Congress could spend that time to enact a legalization and a worker program that would render all of these state and local initiatives null.

About the Author: Andrea Nill is an immigration researcher/blogger for ThinkProgress.org and the Progress Report at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

This blog originally appeared on Wonk Room on March 15, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

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