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California Farmworkers Often Forced to Live in Squalor, Says Report

4:09 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions.

Originally posted at In These Times

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions. Though the reforms won by previous generations have extended basic labor and safety protections to seasonal and immigrant farmworkers, many remain shut out of the right to decent accommodations.

According to a new report published by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the housing crisis in the agricultural workforce has worsened over the last generation. Despite the locavore fads and slow-food diets that have infused today’s farm-fresh produce with an air of glamour, as a workplace, the fields still echo the social marginalization and scandalous poverty that sparked the groundbreaking grape boycott of the late 1960s.

Don Villarejo, the longtime farmworker advocate who authored the report, tells In These Times that growers have “systematically” reduced investment in farmworker housing over the past 25 years in order to reduce overhead costs and to avoid the trouble of meeting state and federal regulations, which were established as part of a broader overhaul of agricultural labor, health and safety standards during the 1960s and 1980s. According to Villarejo, workers’ modern material circumstances are little improved from the old days of the Bracero system. That initiative—the precursor to our modern-day guestworker migrant program—became notorious for shunting laborers into spartan cabins, tents and other inhospitable dwellings on the farms themselves, beset with entrenched poverty and unhealthy, brutish conditions. Read the rest of this entry →

Court Okays Labor Department Rule: Guestworkers Must Earn Prevailing Wages

4:53 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally published at In these Times

Each year, tens of thousands of immigrant “guestworkers” come to the United States on special employer-sponsored visas to work temporary jobs in landscaping, hotel housekeeping and other low-wage sectors. But for decades, these workers have been demonized and scapegoated, accused of hurting “native” U.S. workers by driving down wages. At the same time, the immigrants themselves have spoken out about their poor wages and working conditions, and have even gone on strike and organized independent labor movements to demand the same rights and wages as that of their American counterparts. It seems the only people who like this system, in fact, are the bosses who rely on a surplus army of imported temporary labor, denied the labor protections and legal rights of citizens.

In 2011, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued major reforms to a flagship guestworker program known as H-2B, which funnels tens of thousands of migrants annually into low-wage jobs in workplaces from Florida hotel chains to crabmeat canneries. Business groups, predictably, sued to block the regulations—but last week, an appeals court finally put their arguments to rest.

The reforms, which the DOL based upon an assessment of wage rates and labor market conditions for U.S. workers, mandate pay high enough to maintain prevailing wages in sectors that recruit guestworkers, and thus sustain current working conditions. The wage rules are part of a package of guestworker program reforms proposed by the DOL, that has long been stalled by Congress and court challenges but, with this court victory, can finally be implemented.

In Louisiana Forestry Association v. Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, business associations representing the forestry, seafood processing and hotel industries, among others, argued that the Labor Department lacked the legal authority to impose the reforms and was impinging upon employers’ control over wages.

However, Meredith Stewart, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which represented the workers’ groups that joined the Labor Department in fighting the suit in court, points out that employers supported the previous, laxer regulations that made it easy to pay substandard wages. “It really wasn’t until the Department of Labor issued a wage rule that would lead to substantial increases for workers that employers decided to challenge their authority to issue any regulations for the program,” she tells Working In These Times. The new rules, she says, simply mandate that “to the extent that employers are going to employ foreign workers, those foreign workers and U.S. workers need to be treated equally and fairly.”

In court, the Labor Department and workers’ advocates cited the agency’s legal mandate, which explicitly directs regulators to protect workers from wage suppression and displacement by unscrupulous bosses. On February 4, the Third Circuit Appeals Court unanimously agreed that the Labor Department had the authority to make the reforms, rejecting the employers’ arguments.

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Capitalists for a Higher Minimum Wage

5:53 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Wisconsin Jobs Now (flickr)

Originally published at In These Times

A Silicon Valley multimillionaire and conservative pundit wants to give his state’s poorest workers a raise. Huh?

Entrepreneur Ron Unz, known for his reactionary views on immigration (along with controversial commentary on race, crimeIQ and social policy), is campaigning for a state ballot measure to lift California’s minimum wage to $12—well above the $10 minimum currently set to take effect in 2016 (and a giant step above the federal wage floor of $7.25).

Some progressives might be puzzled that Unz, who in the late 1990s famously pushed a ballot measure to scrap bilingual education programs in California, has taken on this populist fight, albeit with an odd neo-Fordist air.

Of course, the Right’s resistance to this has never been realistic; empirical research shows that lifting the federal minimum wage could boost earnings for a third of the country’s workforce and drive broad economic growth. The opposition is mostly ideological, based on overblown charges that high labor costs will harm employers, along with the business community’s general antipathy toward state regulation of wages.

But some conservatives, including Unz and pundits Phyllis Schlafly and Bill O’Reilly, have come around to seeing a minimum-wage hike as an anti-poverty measure that’s good for capitalism—and perhaps more importantly, a market-based alternative to government welfare. Unz’s initiative still contains kernels of his anti-immigration leanings, though not as explicitly as his earlier ballot initiative. He believes that increased wages for American workers would help those who are legally authorized to work while, over time, squeezing out workers who are not. Read the rest of this entry →

Checkpoint: Sovereignty, Borders and Justice

4:01 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Damiana Cavanha leads the campaign to reclaim Guarani ancestral lands from a sugar cane plantation in Brazil. Courtesy Survival International

Originally published at CultureStrike

Damiana Cavanha, a member of the indigenous Guarani-Kaiowà people in rural Brazil, has almost nothing left to lose. She’s seen her community come under violent attack as a sugar plantation consumes her land. Several family members, including her husband and three children, have perished in their precarious encampment by the highway. As one of the last holdouts of her community, the grandmother and chief described her situation plainly to human rights advocates: “We are refugees in our own country.”

The idea of being a refugee in one’s own homeland disrupts the assumptions we often carry about who belongs where and about the legitimacy of one’s citizenship. Cavanha is locked in a unique position as an internal refugee as well as a native person. But if you listen to her words you hear the same sense of rage shared by dispossessed peoples across the hemisphere. These are people trying to defend their traditional indigenous lands, and they’re also those claiming the right to stay in the places where they’ve resettled and built new lives. The right to move and the right to stay both turn on the struggle for self-determination and sovereignty.

Earlier this month, many native communities celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a counterpoint to the conventional celebrations of Columbus Day, aiming to honor the histories and the cultural survival of indigenous communities despite centuries of cultural genocide and ecological destruction. Since the late 1970s, community groups and educators have used to the day to draw attention to ongoing struggles for land and cultural rights.

But it’s not just about honoring the past. The uprisings of indigenous folks that continue today resonate deeply with other social justice struggles, and increasingly, movements are turning to indigenous insurgencies as examples of how to organize communities across racial divides and national boundaries.

The familiar activist slogan “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” bridges migrant and native resistance, from the first genocides of native peoples to the enslavement of Africans to contemporary campaigns for racial justice.

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Migrant Women Bring Voices to Capital

3:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrant women participated in the immigration rally in Washington D.C. on Oct. 8. (Centro de los Derechos del Migrante)

Originally published at In These Times

Adareli 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.

Last 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. Read the rest of this entry →

Checkpoint: Waiting and Death at the Border

3:46 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Landing at Lampedusa (National Institute for Health, Migration and Poverty of Italy)

This post was originally published at CultureStrike:

Migration is about movement across borders. But it’s also about waiting at them: waiting for your hearing in court, waiting for a phone call home at the detention center, waiting for a visa to reunite you with loved ones you’ve been separated from for decades. And there’s the agonizing wait in Washington for politicians to reform the dysfunctional legal system that has trapped millions in legal limbo.

This week, the political stagnation thickened as various parts of the federal government remained shuttered. While Border Patrol was allowed to continue as one of the “essential” services untouched by the congressional impasse, other aspects of the immigration system ground to a halt. The immigration courts—which handle both civil immigration prosecutions as well as asylum hearings—are largely paralyzed. Immigrants seeking to resettle in the U.S. after fleeing conflict or persecution have seen their legal limbo indefinitely suspended.

Although the U.S. touts itself as a major host country for refugees—the government received about 83,400 asylum claims last year—the government has been sharply criticized for inhumane practices, such as arbitrary detention, unnecessary separations of families, and an opaque, Kafkaesque legal gauntlet that that is notoriously difficult to navigate, regardless of the credibility of a petitioner’s claims. Even before the shutdown, the immigration court system overall was saddled with a swelling backlog approaching roughly 350,000 cases.

The shutdown has further destabilized the lives of asylum seekers. On Monday, Washington D.C.-based immigration lawyer Andres Benach described on NPR his numerous cases that are on hold until the shutdown ends. One client in particular is waiting for a court to prove her claim of fleeing sexual violence so she can start rebuilding her life. Though she is technically authorized to work in the U.S. “just having simple work authorization is not really the same as knowing that your status has been resolved finally,” he said, “that you can live permanently in the United States, that you can go back to your life and grow and develop in the way that most of us take for granted.”

The shutdown has further derailed the near-moribund immigration reform debate, which had already started slipping off the congressional calendar amid budget and military standoffs. Now activists are looking beyond 2013 for future legislative action in a battle that has dragged on since 2006. Read the rest of this entry →

New York City Immigrants Test a New Economic ‘Bridge’

8:04 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Lady Liberty welcomes immigrants to New York City, but in reality it’s hard for skilled workers to get their foot in the door. (Sgt. Randall. A. Clinton / Flickr )

Originally published at In These Times

For all the supposed potential of the “American Dream,” immigrants in New York City often have a terrible time redeeming its promise. Many arrive in the United States with no financial grounding or burdened by a heap of debt; others can spend years priced out of financial credit by poverty and discrimination. Now, however, the city is allocating a little seed capital toward the long-overlooked economic potential of poor immigrant communities.

The Immigrant Bridge program of the city’s Economic Development Corporation is a pilot initiative that aims to invest in the future careers of struggling, underemployed immigrant workers who came equipped with credentials earned in their home countries but have been unable to get their foot in the professional door of the city’s labor market. A core component of the program is a special loan fund for immigrants with a college background, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, borrowed on five-year terms, which can be used to cover any expense, including the cost of necessary licensing exams, training classes, or basic life expenses like transportation costs. In addition to the loan fund, which will be administered by Amalgamated Bank, selected program participants would engage in career development programs to place them into jobs that suit their aptitudes.

Though Amalgamated obviously has a commercial interest in the program, the union-owned bank has built up street cred as a proletarian-friendly institution, with historical ties to the immigrant labor movement. “There’s a lot of unutilized human capital here in immigrant communities… and we want them to be reaching their full potential,” says Andrew Weltman, Amalgamated’s first Vice President for Strategic Development.

The 400 participants who will ultimately be selected to participate in Immigrant Bridge reflect just a sliver of a systemic gap in the city’s economic landscape, though. Many well-educated immigrants face structural obstacles when seeking to break into a professional field, even one in which they were successful before migrating. (Nationwide data on metropolitan areas hows that the majority of immigrants hold “middle skill” or “high skill” qualifications.)

According to the New York-based think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrant New Yorkers hold considerable economic clout, making up “84 percent of small grocery store owners, 69 percent of restaurant owners, and 63 percent of clothing store owners.” But even if they are technically business owners, the work can be rough and the pay low, whether you’re running a daycare business in your home or driving a cab every night. Read the rest of this entry →

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.

Read the rest of this entry →

‘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 →

Who Started the Fires in Sweden?

12:07 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at Truthout

(Photo: Telefonkiosk / Wikimedia)

One evening in May, a modest Scandinavian suburb caught on fire. Images streaming out of Husby, just outside Stockholm, overlaid the Nordic socialist wonderland with a scene straight out of Watts circa 1965 – sidewalks strewn with charred cars, shattered glass and angry kids. For days, the riots bled across the region and jarred international observers who tend to associate Sweden with modular furniture rather than youth mobs. But the most shocked might have been Husby’s own neighbors, who had been resolutely ignoring the social fissures roiling next door before they exploded in the headlines.

The “disturbance” was sparked by a police confrontation on May 14 that led to the shooting death of a 69-year old immigrant man, reportedly armed with a knife.

A local youth activist group, Megafonen, staged a peaceful rally demanding an independent investigation. Soon, the police cracked down, and according to activists, hurled racial slurs and brutalized local youth. The clash spiraled into riots that lasted six days, streaking flames across Husby and soon spreading to several other Stockholm suburbs. The sensational media images of youth roaming the streets ruptured cultural, racial and generational fault lines of the increasingly polarized city.

Megafonen posted a statement on the riots that read like both a lament and a manifesto:

It is tragic that public transportation, emergency services and police are attacked. Sad that cars burn, that homes and commercial buildings are damaged. We share the despair with everyone else witnessing the devastation in our own neighborhoods. It is this desperation that forces us to look for structural explanations that attack the causes of this devastation.

So far, Parliament has discussed launching an independent inquiry into the uprising. Yet activists remain wary that politicians have continually failed to address, or simply ignored, the social ills simmering below the surface.

“This is the other side of prosperous Stockholm,” writes University of Gothenburg researcher Catharina Thörn in the New Left Project, “beyond the seductive theater of consumption that characterizes the central city, people fight for a decent life, or just to get by, while common resources are continually being snatched away and privatized.”

Tinderbox of Alienation

The fires in Husby were kindled well before the first car was set alight. Sweden’s rough working-class enclaves are a world apart from the bourgeois tranquility often associated with Scandinavia’s pristine cities and extensive welfare state. Places like Husby are home to immigrant families with roots in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. Many of them came as refugees from war-torn regions like Somalia; they entered under the country’s relatively liberal immigration and asylum policies, and sometimes still carry with them the scars of past traumas.

In these neighborhoods, activists say, chronic joblessness and limited educational opportunities intertwine with racial and ethnic divides. Many immigrants, and even “second generation” children of immigrants, face discrimination from white “native-born” Swedes, and their isolated neighborhoods keep many locked into a cycle of chronic economic and social segregation.

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