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Posts Tagged ‘Michelle Chen’

Do Workers with Criminal Backgrounds Deserve a Second Chance?

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Michelle ChenThe promise that 2011 will be a year of economic recovery rings hollow for the workers held back by their past. For many who’ve been in trouble with the law, not even a lifetime is enough to recover from a bad rap sheet.

A brand-new report by the National Employment Law Project shows that people with criminal backgrounds, even those who’ve paid their dues to the state, are unfairly shut out of employment opportunities and denied the second chance they need to overcome their past.

Today, about one in 100 adults in America are in the prison system. Prison releases have exceeded 700,000 per year, according to recent federal data . And many are headed for a job market where the vast majority of employers screen applicants for criminal histories. According to NELP, “more than one in four U.S. adults—roughly 65 million people—have an arrest or conviction that shows up in a routine criminal background check.” All that adds up to a dead end for people who have a criminal taint on their record.

In the midst of fierce competition for scarce jobs, a second chance is hard to come by for people with criminal backgrounds—which could range from an arrest for smoking a joint decades ago, to a more serious conviction for which a sentence has been fully served. NELP’s research reveals that employers across the country routinely post job ads that include blanket clauses disqualifying applicants with criminal records. A compilation of online job listings includes phrases like, “You must not have any felony or misdemeanor convictions on your record. Period.”

(Image via Ban the Box campaign, The Defenders Online)

(Image via Ban the Box campaign, The Defenders Online)

But civil rights advocates aren’t letting biased employers get the last word. They have launched legal challenges against these exclusionary hiring policies under the framework of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, gender and other protected categories. Since blacks and Latinos are historically overrepresented throughout the criminal justice system—in arrest rates as well as length of the sentence—advocates argue that the words “need not apply” in effect act as a structural barrier to opportunity in communities of color.

The downward spiral of exclusion and marginalization is intensified when the job market is increasingly under the grip of mega-companies. People seeking entry-level jobs in their communities may be completely at the mercy harsh screening policies at major employers like Radioshack, Aramark, and, that bastion of legal rectitude, Bank of America.

There are reasonable arguments for screening applicants for criminal histories, particularly if employers have workplace security concerns. Yet, as NELP points out, there is often little if any connection between a rap sheet and the personality, goals or capacities of the person behind it. A minor drug charge during one’s youth may look like a glaring blight on an application form. But the employer who screens her out automatically will never hear the job-seeker explain in an interview how she’s been sober,  steadily employed for the past ten years, or how the police record was erroneous in the first place and never corrected.

The data, in fact, shows that giving the benefit of the doubt to people with less-than-pristine records pays dividends for employee, employer and society as a whole. In the long run, NELP argues:

The irony is that employers’ attempts to safeguard the workplace are not only barring many people who pose little to no risk, but they also are compromising public safety. As studies have shown, providing individuals the opportunity for stable employment actually lowers crime recidivism rates and thus increases public safety.

A few progressive employment and training programs have emerged to address some of these barriers, but social services alone cannot make up for the economic toll of a criminal justice system aimed at punishment and not rehabilitation, much less helping people build a future from a rough past.

In addition to racial disparities, exclusionary policies may have special impacts on women struggling to to reintegrate into work and family life after prison. A 2008 study published by University of California-Berkeley School of Law examined the economic prospects of formerly incarcerated women and found hidden obstacles that prevent them from staying employed (and out of jail).

When you peel back the stigma of a criminal record, you’ll find much more troubling histories underlying their struggles, including physical and sexual abuse, health problems, and the hardships of long-term separation from their children. Focus group studies with women in the Bay Area suggested that the social services and programs in their communities were inadequate for helping overcome these hurdles.

One of the lead researchers in the study, Monique Morris, told In These Times of how legal barriers to employment, coupled with misguided policies within prison, sometimes reach the height of absurdity:

In a number of instances, women were qualified to work in a field because of work experience while incarcerated, but precluded from working in that same area upon their release because of their criminal record. For example, a number of women worked as fire fighters while incarcerated. But they could not do that work on the outside.

According to the study’s analysis of job applications showing a woman had done time versus those that didn’t, “formerly incarcerated women were 31 percent less likely to receive a positive response from potential employers.”

The consequences go beyond the sting of rejection. When an unalterable stigma is combined with long-term unemployment, being permanently branded as a criminal can lead to crippling self-doubt, frustration, and in some cases, desperation that is deep enough to drive someone back into crime.

Over time, thousands of individuals who are asked to “check the box” on an application form are slowly drained of the will to put their lives back together. That only adds to the sense of hopelessness dogging the country’s working class—building a social prison that our “recovering” economy can ill afford.

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 24, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

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.

Freedom of Movement: Migrant Rights in the Global Economy

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

What if lawmakers had the guts to create comprehensive labor legislation for immigrants, enshrining their rights in accordance with international law? What if our legal system recognized immigrants’ freedom of movement, shielded families from unnecessary separation, and allowed real recourse against exploitative employers?

We should know better, of course, than to expect anything approaching that from Capitol Hill, where the hobbling immigration debate is dictated by business interests and xenophobia.

So, it’s a good thing such a law has already been drafted for them. Years ago, in response to the growing intersection between human rights and labor migration, the United Nations developed the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Recognizing that border-crossing is an economic right and necessity, the Convention’s provisions include freedom from discrimination in the workplace and public services, equal protection before the law, and protection from “arbitrary expulsion,” violence and intimidation by groups or individuals.

Yet in another stunning display of American exceptionalism, the United States has not joined the dozens of other countries that have ratified these common-sense principles. Washington prefers to relegate immigration issues to the domestic policy arena, which allows it to capitalize freely on a two-tier labor force.

Chandra Bhatnagar of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program noted last December (in a rather lonely celebration of International Migrants Day) that there are three distinctly vulnerable subsets of migrants in America: Guestworkers, who have employment-based visas, are at risk of being chained to exploitative employers without legal recourse. And undocumented workers, following a controversial Supreme Court ruling in 2002, have lost safeguards in the areas of accessible remedies when injured or killed on the job, overtime pay, workers’ compensation” and other protections. Domestic and agricultural workers have been shut out of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and other labor laws, deprived of a minimum wage floor, workplace safety protections, and the right to unionize.

In a recent paper on the labor migration and international law, Villanova University law professor Beth Lyon writes that a major obstacle to ratification of the Convention examined the government’s reluctance to open its immigration policy to scrutiny under international law:

It appears that the Migrant Worker Convention has received virtually no domestic attention in the United States from either civil society, domestic or international government, likely because it is assumed that any attempt to define immigrants as rights holders is a political non-starter.

But Lyon argues that ratification of the Convention could “help to break through the current domestic political stalemate and build-up of undocumented immigrants” and

advance agendas important to both the right and the left, including increased national security through enhanced standing with the global south and an improved humanitarian situation for one of America’s most vulnerable groups.

Many immigrants’ rights advocates are bypassing the government to leverage international law on their own. The ACLU, for instance, recently invoked United Nations policies in advocating for hundreds of Indian guest workers imported to as cheap forced labor in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. The organization complemented its litigation in federal court with an appeal to the U.N. Spe­cial Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

U.S.-based activists have worked with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate detention facilities in Texas and Arizona, as well as law enforcement policies toward undocumented immigrants.

Last month, the Commission’s Rapporteurship on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families reported, “many men, women and children detained in those facilities are held in unacceptable conditions.” The delegation also criticized reliance on local police in anti-immigrant crackdowns, warning that “the federal government might be unable to hold local law enforcement properly accountable for enforcing immigration laws with respect for basic human rights.”

The Florida-based Coalition of Imokalee Workers has framed the plight of exploited migrant farmworkers as a modern-day international slave trade. Targeting food-industry behemoths like Taco Bell and McDonald’s, the group has combined grassroots labor organizing with massive public education campaigns to pressure employers to improve wages and working conditions.

Advocates for domestic workers in New York City link the struggles of home-based laborers, the vast majority of them immigrant women of color, to global economic dynamics and the country’s legacy of racial oppression. To offset the lack of federal protections, Domestic Workers United is pushing for stronger state-level regulations, like livable wage standards, protection from trafficking, and integration into New York’s human rights laws.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico discussed trade agreements and border enforcement at the summit in Guadalajara this week. As usual, officials focused on the movement of goods, not people.

Yet the engines of global capital are greased by the flow of labor across borders. A byproduct of economic “integration” has been economic apartheid in immigrant communities. While the political establishment works to advance the rights of corporations to trade freely, the rights of migrants to basic human dignity are brushed off the agenda.

Michelle Chen: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She also blogs at Racewire.org

This article originally appeared at Working In These Times on July 10, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the source.

Will Teacher be Left Behind by the Stimulus Gold Rush?

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

To teachers across the country, the carrot that Washington is dangling before schools could soon start to feel like a stick.

As the Obama administration funnels stimulus money into public schools, states will compete for a $4.3 billion fund known as Race to the Top. But the strings attached to the money reflect a vision for school reform that many activists fear will drive the corporatization of education and the marginalization of organized labor.

One key requirement is that states allow teachers to be assessed on the basis of standardized test scores—a policy that could ignite labor disputes over merit pay and raise philosophical questions about how to evaluate educators.

The funding guidelines could endanger some states’ access to the funds, due to “firewall” policies that bar the direct use of test scores in employment-related decisions, such as awarding tenure—a protection against unfair judgment of teachers based on limited data.

The Race to the Top guidelines also prioritize the expansion of charter schools and alternative pathways for teacher certification, like Teach for America’s fast-track program for top-tier college grads. Both have been hyped as a way to bring innovation and “entrepreneurialism” to public schools. But critics view charters and alternative credentialing as steps toward privatization and deregulation, which in turn alienate struggling students and undermines union power.

By tethering stimulus money to controversial policy initiatives, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is stoking tensions between free-market reform principles and unions’ mission to protect their professions and labor standards.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, signaled a willingness to compromise in a recent statement, calling for “shared responsibility” and transparency in reform efforts.

But many cast doubt on the merits of the Duncan brand of reform.

In a new report on efforts to reform teacher pay schemes, the Center for American Progress challenges the common assumption that “compensation is the primary incentive for teachers to perform at higher levels”:

[N]umerous approaches have been punitive or simplistic in design, implementation, or marketing. This is one reason that teachers and unions have frequently opposed efforts to link learning and compensation. Teachers have often seen these efforts as professionally insulting and as misunderstanding what leads to improved performance.

To progressive education activists, the Duncan brand of reform—which was incubated during his tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools —embodies the worst aspects of No Child Left Behind.

Though the Bush-era law was billed as a path toward alleviating racial and socioeconomic educational gaps, critics say it has cheated disadvantaged students by emphasizing rigid high-stakes testing regimes rather than genuine intellectual development.

From a labor standpoint, Jim Horn of Schools Matter says the Race to the Top will accelerate the downward spiral in public education:

The winners of the Race to the Top will not be teachers, who will be further humiliated by having meager pay raises to their embarrassingly low salaries now dependent upon test score production work….

Among the winners will not be the embattled teaching profession, since Mr. Duncan prefers the marginally-prepared and the alternatively-certified teachers to those with real credentials based on both content and pedagogy expertise.

While Duncan tries to pull schools and unions toward a hardline “accountability” agenda, there are signs that some educators are bucking mainstream reform trends from the ground up. Teachers at some charter schools are moving to unionize to stabilize their jobs and working conditions.

In Duncan’s former hometown, a crop of radical teachers has risen up against Chicago’s plans to overhaul and shut down under-performing schools. The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) filed a discrimination lawsuit last month to challenge the city’s school “turnaround” initiative.

CORE alleges that black teachers have been disparately harmed by staff purges, and that the restructuring has disrupted students’ education, with little accountability to parents and surrounding communities.

Amid all the political bluster around “fixing” public schools, the lesson that seems to constantly elude policymakers is a simple one: a classroom is a space for intellectual exploration as well as a workplace, and it works best when it enables students and teachers to thrive together.

In the Obama administration’s race to reform, is there room at the top for the whole school community?

Michelle Chen: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She also blogs at Racewire.org

This article originally appeared at Working In These Times on July 30 and is reprinted here with permission from the source.

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