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Carnivals Are No Picnic for Migrant Workers

3:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrant workers who set up and take down rides at traveling fairs, like this one in North Texas, complain of wage theft and grueling hours. (Double H Photography/Wikimedia Commons).

Originally published at In These Times

A trip to the carnival is the quintessential American summer pastime. But for workers who run the show, the hard labor of making our holidays carefree can be shockingly grim.

lawsuit lauched last week by two migrant workers illustrates the ugly side of the leisure industry. Over a period of several years, while park patrons enjoyed the fun and rides of the Butler Amusements, the migrants say they were systematically exploited. The suit, filed in a California federal district court, lists them only as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, because, as is typical in this sector, they fear retaliation from labor recruiters in their hometowns in Mexico.

A decade ago, the workers paid a recruiter hundreds of dollars just for the privilege of arranging a coveted job in the United States. But, they say, in approximately seven years working for Butler, they were consistently underpaid for their drudge work—setting up, breaking down, transporting and maintaining machinery and equipment at industry giant’s numerous fair sites, which stretched across California, Arizona, Nevada and Idaho. On a typical day they toiled 10 to 14 hours for wages that amounted to about $5 an hour, they say.

These carnival workers were not the undocumented migrants of the “underground economy” as depicted in the news. They were legally hired, thanks to the federal H-2B visa program for temporary foreign labor. In other words, the lawsuit underscores the fact that even with official papers, many “guestworkers” have virtually no power to resist abuse.

According to a recent report by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM)—the advocacy group that, along with Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center, is representing the Butler workers—the fair and carnival industry relies on the H-2B visas to fill slots for exhausting, often hazardous seasonal work in a business built on itinerant entertainment and fast profits. Under the influence of apowerful hospitality and leisure industry lobby, Congress has maintained a large H-2B visa program, currently capped at 66,000 H-2B visas annually, to staff hotels, resorts and entertainment facilities. While the leisure sectors in general are fueled by a trasient, precarious workforce, the industry of seasonal amusement businesses like summer carnival companies, which in 2011 secured about 5,000 H-2B visas, mostly from Mexico, benefit from especially lax oversight under federal labor law.

The cheap thrills come at a high price for workers. Employers often withhold or underpay wages, or pay out only in lump sums, and workers could end up earning under $300 a week. Wages are further undercut by massive debts owed to predatory labor recruiters in Mexico. One worker interviewed in the report said a workday could run as long as 24 hours straight if he had to break down and set up a ride. Another worker lamented, “We couldn’t even support ourselves, let alone send money home, which is why we came.”

For traveling carnival shows, the migrants pass through various states with different labor regulations, which poses an obstacle to monitoring employers and enforcing workplace protections.

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‘Bargain’ on Immigration Would Feed Prison Profits

7:47 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Rennett Stowe / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

The supposed grand bargain of the immigration reform bill is shaping up to be a lucrative deal for prisons. As a compromise between “border security” and “amnesty,” the comprehensive reform plan emerging in Congress ties the “legalization” of millions of migrants to the prospective criminalization of millions more.

The Senate’s reform bill, now being debated in the House, would boost immigration enforcement by beefing up border patrols, militarized barriers, border surveillance, immigration prosecutions and privately run detention facilities. According to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections, the original bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee “would increase the prison population by about 14,000 inmates annually by 2018.” (The number of “immigration offenders” in federal prison has risen over the past decade to about 22,100 in 2011.) Just before passage, the bill was saddled with the draconian “Hoeven-Corker border security amendment,” which contains harsher, more costly enforcement provisions, including a doubling of border agents to roughly 40,000.

Though the fate of the bill is now unclear, House Republicans could take an even more reactionary stance, perhaps by insisting on even more oppressive border security measures in exchange for reform or by simply rejecting any significant steps toward legalization and pushing tighter restrictions instead.

Under the centrist reform plan, some immigrants can gain legal status under certain conditions, such as paying heavy fines and meeting rigid qualifications for criminal background checks and employment status. Attainiing citizenship could take well over a decade. Meanwhile, to placate conservatives, the bill expands the corporate systems that lock up and dehumanize the migrants who don’t make it over the legal threshold.

So, while the bill produces new citizens, the “security” measures would produce more prisoners, conveniently filling tens of thousands of detention beds, many of them run by for-profit contractors on the public’s dime. As Stephen Myrow, managing director of the investment research firm ACG Analytics, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “Immigration reform will boost revenue at privately operated prisons.”

In other words, there is a tremendous incentive [in the Senate bill] for those contractors who could bid for new prison contracts,” says Alexis Mazón, a researcher with Justice Strategies, a criminal justice watchdog group. And they aren’t the only beneficiaries, she notes: Developers and manufacturers of policing and surveillance technologies also stand to gain.  Read the rest of this entry →

A Budget That Tightens Belts by Emptying Stomachs

10:24 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times.

A time-honored tactic of conservative lawmakers is to “starve the beast”by defunding government programs. In the case of food stamps—the quintessential whipping boy for budget hawks—they’re going a step further by trying to starve actual people.

The House of Representatives and Senate have proposed the United States “tighten our belts” by slashing billions of dollars from poor people’s food budgets. The main mechanism for shrinking the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding is the removal of “categorical eligibility.” Basically, most states have used this policy to streamline enrollment: Families are made eligible for food stamps based on their receipt of other benefits, such as housing or childcare subsidies. That often means broadening eligibility for working-poor families or those with overall household income or savings that exceeds regular, stricter thresholds for qualifying for food stamps.

Now the House and Senate farm bill proposals, particularly the House plan, seek to “save” billions more by cutting categorical eligibility. Under the House farm bill budget, which cuts $20.5 billion in SNAP over 10 years, benefits would be eliminated for “nearly 2 million low-income people, mostly working families with children and senior citizens,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). (The Senate bill also cuts SNAP but only by about $4 billion over 10 years). In addition, the cuts would devastate poor students, because SNAP eligibility has enabled 210,000 low-income children to qualify for free school meals. That means more hunger pangs for kids in the cafeteria, and an emptier refrigerator waiting for them at home. Meanwhile, their working-poor parents may find themselves buying cheaper, less nutritious food to stretch budgets, or turning to the local food pantry, or facing cruel trade-offs like delaying rent payments to pay for groceries or leaving a health problem untreated. Read the rest of this entry →

A New Door for Guestworkers?

5:08 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally posted at In These Times

The perennial impasse in the immigration debate between labor and business seems to be fading as a group of senators, working with industry and union lobbies, irons out a framework that would bring more migrants into the labor force, purportedly under a system that extends rights and protections for so-called “guestworkers.” But what the new system really means for workers depends on how it is implemented and regulated, and who is controlling the gates.

The proposed W-visa plan reportedly strikes a compromise between business’s desire for low-cost labor and union concerns (represented by the AFL-CIO in Washington) about maintaining jobs for U.S. workers and enforcing wage-and-hour laws. Aimed at less-skilled sectors like restaurant work, the W-visa would differ from previous employment-based visas in two key ways. For one, it would offer immigrants a way to petition for residency and eventually attain citizenship. And unlike much maligned temporary-worker programs, the visa would be “portable,” meaning it would not be tied to a specific workplace or employer. In theory, that would allow a worker to switch jobs without jeopardizing her legal status.

Addressing fears of creating a “second tier,” or minimally regulated low-wage workforce, the compromise reportedly ensures that employers pay no less than the industry’s standard “prevailing wage,” determined according to labor market conditions. The New York Times reports:

Labor groups wanted to ensure that guest workers would not be paid less than the median wage in their respective industries, and the two sides compromised by agreeing that guest workers would be paid the higher of the prevailing industry wage as determined by the Labor Department or the actual employer wage.

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Corporate-Approved State Bills Kick Low-Wage Workers While They’re Down

4:17 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

President Obama called for a modest raise in the federal minimum wage to $9 in his State of the Union Address, and several Democratic legislators have upped his bid with a proposed increase to $10.10.

But an insidious effort to lower the wage floor is already underway much closer to the ground—in the state legislatures where right-wing lobbyists have been greasing the skids for years for an onslaught of anti-worker policies.

An extensive analysis recently published by labor advocacy organization the National Employment Law Project tracks more than 100 bills introduced in 31 states since January 2011 that “aim to repeal or weaken core wage standards at the state or local level.” Each bears the fingerprint of notorious super-lobbying organization the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which acts as a forum for “private sector leaders” to advise public officials. Most of the anti-worker bills were proposed by lawmakers directly linked to ALEC and include language that echoes that of “model legislation” developed by ALEC. Among the proposals are measures to undercut minimum wages for teenage workers, restrict overtime pay and repeal or ban local laws to improve working conditions.

ALEC has been called out by activists for pushing legislation that advances a classic right-wing agenda, from school privatization to rolling back healthcare reform. But the “wage suppression” tactics are a particularly callous attempt by ALEC-affiliated legislators to feed corporate profits by starving workers. Read the rest of this entry →

Immigration Reform Would Boost Business, Undermine Rights

7:57 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Santiago Armengod /

After years of Congressional silence on immigration, Washington is finally stirring toward legislative reform, driven by Democrats and Republicans angling for Latino and Asian votes. But the plans being concocted have already sharply diverged from the demands of the grassroots immigrant-rights movement.

So far, the White House and a bipartisan group of Senators have each floated similar outlines for reform that include a process for legalization or citizenship, recruitment of foreign-born workers into select industries, and strict “border security” measures. The details of leaked White House draft plan, prepared as a “back up” to the congressional proposals, were reported by USA Today this weekend. Despite criticism from conservatives, the draft also emphasizes stronger enforcement of immigration laws.

Though the various efforts all aim to fashion a “comprehensive” reform package, any resulting legislation will likely be anything but: While lawmakers squabble over how broad or narrow to make the legalization process, activists fear Congress may simply erect a bureaucratic dam in place of a broken border wall, let corporations control the floodgates, and still exclude millions of immigrants.

The best and brightest?

Both President Obama and the Senate group endorse special visa programs for specific sectors that, not coincidentally, wield lobbying influence. The agricultural industry pushed for, and got, promises of visas for migrant farmworkers. At the other end of the economic spectrum, Silicon Valley moguls successfully advocated visas for science and technology professionals. Such limited visas are usually called “guestworker” programs, although the Washington proposals shy away from the controversial term.

According to talking points emerging from the White House and the Senate group, another special channel of relief may be opened for undocumented youth, following high-profile, media-savvy mobilizations to support the DREAM Act, which would legalize undocumented students. (In response to continued stagnation on the legislation in Congress, Obama issued ascaled-down administrative directive in August to defer deportations for DREAM-eligible youth).

But many lower-profile migrants have virtually no voice on the Hill. Undocumented women laboring as domestic workers in private homes, or day laborers and dishwashers paid under the table, are no less in need of relief. But under the proposals in play, they can only hope for a more limited legalization process, which might impose deep financial penalties and drag on for years (some estimates suggest up to several million could be disqualified by barriers such as minor past convictions or English-language requirements). Moreover, it’s unclear how far “comprehensive” reforms would go toward ensuring enforcement of labor protections for all—citizen and non, with or without papers—which labor activists see as a crucial step toward building a truly fair, inclusive workforce.

Border security, human insecurity

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Children of Immigrants Targeted by Tax Warfare in Congress

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Evan Finn / Creative Commons

The fundamental injustice of the tax system grows clearer as tax day looms ominously over working people and a few horde more and more of the nation’s wealth. Short of a total collapse of capitalism, the primary redistributive remedy for this would be progressive taxation. But our tax policy gets it exactly backward, and it’s about to get a bit worse. And as with so many wars of attrition against the working class, this one begins by shafting disenfranchised communities, especially immigrants.

While the rich are rolling in tax giveaways, a few credits actually give poor folks a break. One of these, the refundable child tax credit (CTC), applies to middle-class and poor parents alike and was claimed by some 21 million taxpayers in 2011, “which averaged about $676 per child and totaled $26.1 billion,” according to Politico. For poor families, the CTC, together with its big sister the Earned Income Tax Credit, provides a lifeline to keep them from plunging below the poverty line.

Now some lawmakers advocate cutting off the child tax credit for tax filers who lack of Social Security number. The move is unabashedly aimed at making life harder for undocumented workers, even taxpaying ones, specifically by punishing their children.

Currently, the CTC is one federal tax benefit that people can claim using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) instead of a social security number. This effectively makes it available to undocumented workers—those who lack formal authorization.

The debate centers on whether children of undocumented workers, who are in many cases U.S.-born, should have the same modest benefits afforded to other working families. According to the First Focus Campaign for Children, the policy “could raise taxes on the families of more than 5.5 million children, including 4.5 million of whom are U.S. citizens.” Children of immigrants are disproportionately Latino and poor, with an estimated two in five poor children growing up in the Latino community.

In addition to being cruel toward immigrant families in general, the proposal is inlaid with the pernicious stereotypes of children of undocumented immigrants, who have been demonized as “anchor babies.” In fact, the canard of immigrant hordes procreating in hopes of using US-born kids as a springboard toward legalization is a myth peddled by anti-immigrant groups to stoke Malthusian demographic panic. But hey, an election year means open season on immigrants and endless bloviating about securing the border. Undocumented workers and other immigrants who cannot vote (despite being breadwinners and taxpayers for their families) can only watch as xenophobic spew greases the campaign trail. Read the rest of this entry →

Washington’s Debt Panic and the Real Social Debt in America

10:48 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

DonkeyHotey via flickr

Cross-posted from In These Times

In the wake of the Congressional Supercommittee’s collapse, we finally have consensus on both sides of the aisle: the lawmakers orchestrating the partisan drama are, behind the scenes, happy to collaborate on destroying economic security for all but the wealthiest Americans.

Though the debt hysteria made good political theater, the main immediate impact on the budget is simply to prolong the sense of doom hovering over struggling households. The budget problem those families face isn’t some theoretical future debt crisis but the possibility of losing unemployment checks when a year-end legislative deadline hits.

Federally funded unemployment benefits, which conservatives dismiss as a fluffy cushion for the shiftless poor, have been a lifeline for some 17 million Americans in the past three years. In addition to helping individual households pay their bills, the benefits have had a ripple effect on cities and towns battered by an anemic job market,  “contributing nearly $180 billion in hard cash to those communities struggling with severe unemployment,” according to a report issued in October by the National Employment Law Project. Read the rest of this entry →

In Anti-Government Politics, “Time-Out” on Regulation versus Shortened Lives

5:21 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Carol Simpson Cartoonwork

Cross-posted from In These Times

Seizing upon a reliable “job creation” talking point, conservatives have stoked their war against “big government” by trying to freeze federal actions to protect the public.

The proposed “Regulatory Time-Out Act,” which would impose a one-year moratorium on “significant” new regulations, takes aim at regulations that keep industry from dumping poison in rivers or accidentally blowing up factory workers—in other words, policies that capitalists call “job killers.”

According to the champion of the bill, Sen. Susan Collins, “significant” rules are those “costing more than $100 million per year,” and those projected to “have an adverse impact on jobs, the economy, or our international competitiveness.” The guiding principle of this proposed regulatory kill-switch is a cold cost-benefit analysis that weighs profitability against people’s health and safety.

This particular bill may not make it through Congress, but it reflects the anti-regulatory mentality on the Hill by offering a convenient tool for undermining the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—that clean-air promoting, worker-protecting, “job killing organization of America,” which presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has promised to shutter once and for all if elected.

Zeroing in on a textbook example of regulatory evil-doing, the measure seems to aim directly at a planned EPA regulation that would reduce emissions from boilers. According to a federal analysis, the pending boiler MACT rule would target tens of thousands of boilers at in various facilities including refineries, chemical plants, universities and commercial buildings, along with dozens of solid waste incinerators. The rule would reduce public exposure to mercury, soot and other toxics linked to cancer, child developmental problems, and premature death. Read the rest of this entry →