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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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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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Farmworkers Face Silent Spring in the Fields

5:30 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(jetsandzepplins/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Some lawmakers in Washington may be losing sleep in the coming weeks as they mull over proposed immigration reform legislation. But many migrant children are haunted at night for a different reason—the quiet nightmare of noxious winds that fill their bedrooms with toxic fumes, a hidden chemical disaster looming over the fields where their parents work.

The promise of legalization through legislation won’t bring relief for those families, who toil on industrial farms and, with or without work authorization, labor every day in poisonous environments. Regulators and lawmakers have largely ignored these chemical hazards; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not updated its Worker Protection Standard for pesticide exposures in 20 years. So advocates for farmworkers have taken their struggle to court.

Pesticide Action Network of North AmericaUnited Farm Workers and other public health and worker organizations filed a petition on July 24 in the 9th Circuit federal appeals court in San Francisco to compel the EPA to enact new pesticide protections for children. The groups, represented by Farmworker Justice and Earthjustice, are specifically demanding regulations on pesticide “drift”: the toxins that waft from the crops to the kitchen tables and playgrounds of surrounding neighborhoods.

The petition, urging action on an earlier challenge filed in 2009, specifically demands that EPA evaluate pesticide drift risks and implement safeguards such as buffer zones “near homes, schools, parks and daycare centers, or wherever children congregate.” Studies have linked pesticide exposures to reproductive health and childhood development problems as well as cancer and respiratory ailments.

recent report by Farmworker Justice highlighted the experience of Graciela, a fern crop worker whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at 15—a condition Graciela attributes to the health risks the family faced when they went to the fields together:

In order to cut the ferns and get those nice long stems that we need, we have to put our faces practically down into them. I realize now how dangerous this is. We are breathing in those pesticides all day long, and how could they not cause us harm.

The current litigation focuses on the EPA’s failure to act on a 2006 congressional mandate to issue protections for children against pesticide drift. But the agency has a long track record of heel-dragging on many pesticide issues.

Due to a division in the regulatory structure, pesticide safety for farmworkers is governed by the EPA, rather than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which regulates chemicals in other industrial workplaces. Under the current weak EPA standards, workers are generally offered only minimal safety information on pesticides. Moreover, with lax labeling requirements, workers often cannot read the English labels on pesticide products that state hazard precautions and instructions for safe handling decontamination. Earth Justice points out that the EPA’s standard “is far more lenient than OSHA rules,” revealing a structural inequity in the labor regulatory regime. Farmworker activists went to Washington in July to urge officials to enact measures such as requiring protective equipment and monitoring exposed workers’ health. Read the rest of this entry →

Bus Strike Exposes Social Divides in Singapore

4:09 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(xcode via flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

A spontaneous strike in November, the first in 26 years, shook up the tight social order of Singapore. As with many aspects of this gleaming global trade hub, the labor action was an import, of sorts. The agitators were Chinese bus drivers protesting the transit company SMRT’s policy of paying Chinese migrants less than other workers. Though the action was relatively limited, with about 171 drivers refusing to work, it did break the law and disrupted the city-state’s usual ultra-efficiency for two days.

In late February, a Singaporean court sentenced four strike leaders to jail for up to seven weeks, despite widespread criticism of the charges from human rights activists. Authorities had already sent a strong warning message by levying heavy fines on some participants and deporting 29 back to China.

For decades, Singapore has been an emblem of the post-colonial Pacific dream, boasting a robust economy, relatively wealthy citizens and a well-oiled bureaucracy. But the unrest among the migrant Chinese drivers, who make up nearly a quarter of SMRT’s total workforce of 2,000 drivers and earn significantly less than their coworkers, underscores the divide between the migrants, who comprise about 35 percent of the workforce, and the “native” Singaporeans, many of whom are uncomfortable with the growing reliance on foreign labor. Read the rest of this entry →

HIV Risks Stalk Migrant Farmworker Communities

5:43 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Shiho Fukada, Coalition of Immokalee Workers (

Originally posted on In These Times

Last month public health advocates and researchers from around the world convened at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. to discuss the state of the crisis. But many of the communities most affected were not in the room. Some, like sex workers, were explicitly barred from entering the country. Others were excluded by their economic and political circumstances. Far from the conference, the country’s farms are quietly stalked by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but struggling migrant farmworkers may not realize they’re at risk until it’s too late.

HIV is one of a myriad of health issues facing migrant farmworkers, but it’s unique in that so little is known about the scope of the problem. Farmworkers are typically cut off from regular social welfare programs and lack insurance, and there are deep gaps in research about HIV prevalence in this population.

Access to healthcare is virtually out of reach for workers tied down by systemic exploitation. The most marginalized farmworkers, the vast majority of them Latino, face high risks of job-related illnesses and injury, abusive working conditions and, frequently, sexual violence against women.

The most recent research that focuses specifically on farmworkers and HIV is alarming, but sparse. A Centers for Disease Control investigation of about 300 farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, (an area notorious for labor exploitation on tomato farming operations), found a prevalence rate of 5 percent. Other studies have found rates ranging from less than half a percent to 13 percent. Overall, the new HIV infection rates for Latino men and women are especially high compared to those for the white population. The bottom line is that there is a dire need for more in-depth research. Read the rest of this entry →

Israel’s Anti-Migrant Violence Fueled by Racial and Economic Segregation

9:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

An African man who was attacked following a rightwing rally in Tel Aviv, May 23, 2012 (photo: Oren Ziv/

Israel has always had issues with space, displacing Palestinian populations and carving out new settlements. Now, a growing migrant population has evoked a fresh wave of xenophobic rage. Last month, Tel Aviv was the site of rabid attacks on shops and residents in African migrant communities.

CNN reported:

Israeli protesters chanted slogans such as “infiltrators get out” and “Tel Aviv: A refugee camp”. Three members of the right wing Likud party–part of the governing coalition–were among the politicians who attended. One of them, Miri Regev, was quoted as saying that “the Sudanese are like a cancer in society.”

Amin, an Eritrean migrant whose business, a local bar, was destroyed by rioters, told the Jerusalem Post in bewilderment, “They just smashed the place up. They destroyed everything. Why? What for? What have we done to them?”

In this nation built by refugees of war and genocide, the protesters seemed oblivious to the historical refraction of this display of mob terror and smashed glass. If anything, their hatred for migrants living and working among them resonated with bigotry overseas, particularly anti-Latino jingoist campaigns in the United States.

Haaretz quoted a shoe seller in the Hatikva neighborhood who seemed inspired by America’s legacy of racism.

“It will become Harlem here,” Kuzarov warned. “You walk here on Shabbat and you don’t see anyone our color. This was the happiest place in the world; now it’s become a black grave.” Read the rest of this entry →

Unwelcome Guests: Work Visa Programs Cheat Global Labor, Build Global Capital

6:44 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Workers with the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice and the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity demonstrate against "sub-human working and living conditions" at the contractor Signal International. (Photo courtesy of Jobs With Justice via Flickr)

Cross-posted from In These Times. 

When immigration comes up in Washington, politicians either politely ignore the issue or engage in lively debate on how best to punish and get rid of undocumented workers. Yet lawmakers give a strikingly warm embrace to certain types of immigrants. Those are the “legal” ones who enter with special visas under the pretext of having special skills or filling certain labor shortages–like Silicon Valley tech jobs or seasonal blueberry harvesting. So what makes one kind of immigrant valuable and another kind criminal?

So-called guestworker programs attest to the arbitrary politics of immigration that has generated a perfectly legal, global traffic in migrant labor. A new report by the advocacy group Global Workers Justice Alliance reveals how various federal visa programs funnel workers into special high-demand sectors, like amusement park staff or computer programmers. Like their “illegal” counterparts, these workers are inherently disempowered: they may be dependent on employers for legal status in the U.S., have their wages regularly stolen, or suffer sexual or physical abuse. Many lack the access to the health care and overtime pay that citizen workers often take for granted. As products of globalization, they’re sometimes compelled to endure virtual indentured servitude to provide critical wage remittances to their families back home.

The economic logic is simple, according to the report: externalize the costs to those who can’t afford to challenge authority.

Especially of note are the visas outside Department of Labor supervision. Under these visas, workers who enter are structurally cheaper than U.S. workers, because employers are legally exempted from certain payroll taxes, legally able to pay wages lower than fair market wages, and/or legally empowered to pass on many basic costs associated with employment – such as transportation, visa fees, housing and more – to the workers.

Companies can also outsource unscrupulous labor practices to third-party manpower agencies, which are known to recruit workers with deceptive job advertising or discriminate against female job applicants. Read the rest of this entry →

Facing Common Struggles, Domestic Workers Mobilize Across Borders

4:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Caring Across Generations (National Domestic Workers Alliance)

Cross-posted from In These Times

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:

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. Read the rest of this entry →

On Hostile Ground, America’s Guestworkers Seek Justice

7:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo courtesy National Guestworker Alliance)

Cross-posted from In These Times

The debate around immigration in Washington brings the same smoke and mirrors each election cycle: anti-immigrant slogans about “securing the border” flashing alongside craftily worded policies to sustain the flow of cheap labor, legal or not. Politicians seem to want it both ways: keeping immigrants locked into a brutal underground workforce, while using mass deportation and constant abuse to exclude them from society.

One popular “compromise” policy on immigration, the “guestworker model,” perfectly weds the ideas of “free markets” and forced labor. For many years, special visa programs have allowed employers to hire temporary foreign labor at paltry wages with minimal oversight. It would be the ultimate captive labor force, except a few things get in the way–mainly that even these workers have some rights under the law, plus indentured servitude looks terribly out-of-date these days, even with Washington’s stamp of approval.

In recent months, young workers channeled into Hershey factory jobs under the J-1 visa “student exchange” program have protested against cruel, coercive working conditions.  Advocates have also called attention to exploited workers under the H2-B program, which places tens of thousands of temporary workers in trades like hotel services and landscaping. For years, various investigations and lawsuits have exposed systematic abuses of seasonal farmworkers in the H2-A program, who toil in conditions often akin to slavery.

The federal government has made some small steps toward addressing guestworker exploitation . As we’ve reported before, reforms to the J-1 program are apparently underway to rein in the abuse and trafficking of youth.

New revisions to the H2-B rules would tighten oversight of bosses to prevent them from skirting wage and hour laws and from retaliating against workers who file complaints. Employers would also have disclose the use of foreign recruitment services, which are known around the world for facilitating debt bondage and human trafficking networks. Read the rest of this entry →

Migrants Struggle in the Shadows of Asia’s Rising Tide of Inequality

2:18 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrants in Libya (Photo: UN)

Cross-posted from In These Times

The much-hyped “emerging economies” of Asia are supposed to be moving up on the world stage, but the labor migration they’ve set in motion has put the poorest workers on a downward spiral. Wherever migrants clamor for jobs in “more developed” countries, social crisis often follows.

A recent protest in Singapore suggests that inequality and unrest simmer even in Asia’s most prosperous enclaves. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Bangladeshi construction workers organized an eight-hour sit-in to demand justice for an all-but-invisible workforce:

The low-wage migrant workers, who, like the much of the city-state’s construction force are from Bangladesh, gathered in a vacant field near their dormitories Monday in Tampines, a part of east Singapore. They were protesting against their employers, Singapore-based Sunway Concrete Products Pte. Ltd and Techcom Construction & Trading Pte. Ltd. Both companies are contracted by the government Housing Development Board to build homes across the island.

The workers said their employers had not paid their salaries for four months, since November last year, despite repeated requests for payment. Initial investigations carried out by officials from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower confirmed that they had not been paid.

The workers also took issue with the food they were being served, which they said was inedible though paid from their own salaries, which are between S$2 – 2.50 (US$1.60 – $2) an hour, according to the workers.

Immigrants being cheated out of wages is a common story everywhere in the world (the U.S. included, of course), and lawmakers have little incentive to clamp down on unscrupulous employers when their economic growth figures are at stake. But Singapore might be more pressured to respond in this case because the labor dispute involves government contractors. Read the rest of this entry →