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Migrant Women Are Holding Society Together During This Pandemic

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The past year has seen several lockdowns as a result of the pandemic, which have had a deep impact on education, employment and the way we work globally. These factors have had an especially stark effect on women.

For more than 168 million children worldwide, schools have been closed for almost a year, forcing them to resort to online learning from home, according to UNICEF. In most households, it is women who have borne the majority of the burden of home schooling during the lockdowns.

Meanwhile, even as working from home has become the “new normal,” the pandemic has resulted in the loss of 24.7 million jobs, according to an estimate by the International Labor Organization. Economic inequality is likely to worsen, the ILO warns, as the jobs crisis disproportionately affects women and migrants.

In Latin America, the frequent lockdowns have come to define life during the pandemic, the social impact of which has unequally been borne by women. This has led to many women having to leave the workforce due to the mounting pressure of looking after their families, especially since the gender pay gap means they might not be the primary earning members of the household.

In cases where women try to retain their jobs while taking on the major burden of the housework as compared to men, sometimes, the only option available—if they can afford it—is to hire a domestic worker to do the various forms of care work like cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and eldercare that cannot be done easily by a working woman. According to data provided by UN Women in 2016, one in six domestic workers is an international migrant; of these workers, 73.4 percent are women. So, the domestic worker is typically a migrant woman.

Due to the precarious nature of domestic work and the insufficient political power among women domestic workers, their working conditions are appalling. According to data provided by Alliance for Solidarity, 57 percent of domestic workers have no fixed working hours. That means that these domestic workers do not control how long they work for in a day and when they can leave their workspaces, nor do they control their breaks and their meals.

Women Workers and the Pandemic

During the pandemic, the situation for domestic workers has worsened. They are presented with tough choices: either they stay in their employer’s house for the duration of the lockdown and therefore neglect their own families, or they choose to commute and risk losing their jobs because their employers fear that they could bring the virus into their households. Domestic workers’ unions have protested against this terrible choice. But their voices are not presented in the media, largely because these women are marginalized and treated as invisible parts of society.

Women domestic workers are part of a large community of informal workers, many of whom have held society together during this pandemic. It is these informal workers who have been attending to food distribution, cleaning public spaces, and working in small grocery stores and other shops. They bear the high risk of being infected not only due to the nature of their work but also because of their long commutes using public transport. In South America, such jobs are held largely by migrant women, many of whom have insecure residency status.

‘We Don’t Have Labor Rights in a Pandemic—Only Working Conditions’

Angélica Venega left Peru for Chile to earn more money so she could support her daughter’s education. A relative put her in contact with Sinducap, a trade union for workers in private households and those who work in related activities. Sinducap is part of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Domestic Workers, founded in 1988. Sinducap, Venega told me, allowed her to bargain for clearly defined working conditions in the home where she is employed. These terms of employment include working hours, provision of meals and money for transportation, payment of social security, a uniform requirement or lack thereof, and limits to what is expected during working hours.

Emilia Solís Vivano, president of Sinducap, told me that there are more than 300 people in the union. The union members are not only domestic workers but also include cleaners, caterers, gardeners and window cleaners. These workers help to sustain a better way of life for their employers. Unfortunately, the same is not possible for them.

Already precarious before the pandemic, the situation for the workers has become worse in the past few months. “Because of the stigmatization of domestic workers as possible [carriers] of the virus,” Venega told me, “many employers ask us to live in the house to avoid using public transportation. This is not exactly an offer. If you don’t accept this offer, you are fired. You are dismissed, but because they make you an offer which you refuse, they call it a resignation. If you resign, there are [no] legal benefits. In a pandemic, we have no labor rights. We only have conditions.”

The demand that domestic workers live in their place of employment, Venega said, is not just about the pandemic, fear of disease, and the protocols of health. The pandemic, she said, is being used by employers to extend the working day for less pay. When you live in the same house where you work, working hours can end up being dictated by the convenience and working conditions of the employers, who may demand more attention once they come home from work, during weekends when receiving visitors, and according to the schedule of their children.

These are conditions, Venega told me, that the employers of domestic workers would not tolerate in their own workplaces, where they are employed, but they are not afraid to impose such terrible conditions on the domestic workers. Employers often reduce the wages of the domestic workers, saying that their own salaries have been reduced due to the pandemic.

If a worker is infected by the COVID-19 virus, then they are summarily fired. Workers are responsible for paying for their treatment and where they spend a quarantine period in these cases. This is even more terrible for a migrant, who might not have a house to go to or a family to shelter with. Being fired could mean deportation.

The “new normal,” Venega told me, is not so “new.” It is part and parcel of how things were even before the pandemic. “What is being made normal,” she said, “is greed.”

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Taroa Zúñiga Silva is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the Secretaría de Mujeres Inmigrantes en Chile. She also is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.


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Meatpacking Workers Say Attendance Policies Force Them to Work With Covid-19 Symptoms

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In April, despite his fever, a meat­pack­ing work­er con­tin­ued to carve neck bones out of pig car­cass­es at a JBS plant in Iowa.

Two weeks lat­er, he would test pos­i­tive for COVID-19. But in the mean­time, he said, he kept clock­ing in because of a puni­tive atten­dance sys­tem wide­ly used in meat­pack­ing plants: the point system.

Under the pol­i­cy, work­ers usu­al­ly receive a point or points for miss­ing a day. If they gain enough points, they’re fired.

For a few months ear­li­er this year, as case counts swelled, Tyson Foods sus­pend­ed its point sys­tem, and Smith­field Foods said it has halt­ed its ver­sion for the time being.

How­ev­er, the point sys­tem has endured at Tyson and JBS plants through­out the pan­dem­ic, and it has con­tin­ued to coerce peo­ple with poten­tial Covid-19 symp­toms into show­ing up to work, said plant employ­ees, their fam­i­ly mem­bers, activists and researchers.

“Peo­ple are afraid now to lose points, and they start to go to work even when they’re sick,” Alfre­do, a machine oper­a­tor in a Tyson poul­try plant in Arkansas, said through an inter­preter. He asked to be iden­ti­fied only by his first name out of fear of retribution. 

“If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep work­ing,” he con­tin­ued. ?“If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home.”

Spokes­peo­ple for the country’s two biggest meat pro­cess­ing com­pa­nies said employ­ees are encour­aged to stay home while ill.

“Our cur­rent atten­dance pol­i­cy encour­ages our peo­ple to come to work when they’re healthy and instructs them to stay home with pay if they have symp­toms of Covid-19 or have test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mick­el­son said. 

“Regard­less of our atten­dance pol­i­cy, at no point dur­ing the pan­dem­ic have we assessed atten­dance points against team mem­bers for absences due to doc­u­ment­ed ill­ness,” JBS spokes­woman Nik­ki Richard­son said.

Still, the point sys­tem has like­ly con­tributed to the virus’s spread, said Jose Oli­va, co-founder of the HEAL Food Alliance, a non-prof­it that orga­nizes food indus­try workers.

“It’s prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter prop­a­ga­tors for the coro­n­avirus that we’ve seen,” he said. ?“It’s absolute­ly dis­as­trous to have a point sys­tem in the midst of a pandemic.”

Work­ers at one Tyson plant and two JBS plants said the only way they can stay home with­out penal­ty is if they test pos­i­tive for the dis­ease. They are required to go to work if they’re wait­ing for test results, they said. 

Once he test­ed pos­i­tive, the Iowa work­er, 50, was allowed to miss work with­out rack­ing up points, he said. He request­ed anonymi­ty because he fears los­ing his job.

Com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion is that many work­ers strug­gle to access test­ing or avoid Covid-19 tests due to the cost, wait times and fear of being tar­get­ed by immi­gra­tion author­i­ties, work­ers and advo­cates said.

The point sys­tem varies from plant to plant.

At the JBS plant in Gree­ley, Colo., where about 300 work­ers have con­tract­ed the virus, employ­ees can rack up six points before they’re fired, accord­ing to a doc­u­ment shared by the local chap­ter of the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers union. 

At a JBS plant in Mar­shall­town, Iowa, it’s sev­en points, and at a Tyson poul­try plant in Arkansas, where hun­dreds of work­ers have fall­en ill, it’s 14 points, accord­ing to screen­shots and pho­tos shared by meat­pack­ing work­ers in those plants. 

At the Tyson plant, the company’s gen­er­al atten­dance pol­i­cy notes that ?“approval of pre­arranged absences is based upon the busi­ness needs of the Com­pa­ny.” Even if work­ers give the plant prop­er noti­fi­ca­tion that they’ll miss a day, they receive a point, accord­ing to a copy of the atten­dance pol­i­cy.

Mick­el­son said the doc­u­ment did not accu­rate­ly reflect the company’s atten­dance pol­i­cy dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, as work­ers have been encour­aged to remain home if they’re sick. 

The point system’s enforce­ment can also depend on the super­vi­sor. They can bend the rules for employ­ees with whom they have a good rela­tion­ship, work­ers said.

While requir­ing employ­ees to wear masks and installing plas­tic bar­ri­ers between work­ers can reduce the trans­mis­sion of the virus, the dis­ease will keep spread­ing if plants don’t iso­late and quar­an­tine sick work­ers, said Shelly Schwed­helm, exec­u­tive direc­tor of emer­gency man­age­ment and bio­pre­pared­ness at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Med­ical Center.

To curb the virus’s spread, ?“get rid of the point sys­tem and don’t deter peo­ple from call­ing in ill,” she said.

After the Iowa meat­pack­ing work­er test­ed pos­i­tive, he stayed home for two weeks before return­ing to the plant. 

Dur­ing the day, he did jump­ing jacks in his base­ment in hopes of strength­en­ing his body enough to fight the virus and recit­ed gasp­ing prayers over the phone with his pas­tor. At night, he walked alone through his desert­ed neigh­bor­hood, wor­ried he wouldn’t wake up again if he fell asleep.

He said the com­pa­ny is ?“mak­ing us go back to work because some damn hogs got to die. But they don’t care about human life. They care more about the damn hogs than they do about people.”

New sys­tem for the pandemic

Before the pan­dem­ic, the JBS plant in Gree­ley allowed 7.5 points before a fir­ing. Now, it’s six, said Kim Cor­do­va, pres­i­dent of UFCW Local 7, the union that rep­re­sents the plant’s 3,000 workers.

“The atten­dance pol­i­cy became even more restric­tive,” she said.

Six work­ers died at the plant, mak­ing it one of the dead­liest pub­licly report­ed meat­pack­ing plant out­breaks in the coun­try, accord­ing to Mid­west Cen­ter track­ing.

Sick employ­ees can only recoup points at the Gree­ley plant if they have a doctor’s note and if they call into an Eng­lish-only atten­dance hot­line, a prob­lem for a work­force that speaks more than 38 lan­guages, Cor­do­va said.

To remove points from their record, work­ers must sub­mit to the union screen­shots of their call his­to­ry to the hot­line. Many work­ers find it to be a con­vo­lut­ed process, Cor­do­va said.

“They’ll give the point, and then the work­er has to fight to have it removed,” she said. ?“They make it real­ly dif­fi­cult to call in while sick, so work­ers are com­pelled to come into work even if they’re symptomatic.”

Richard­son, JBS’s spokes­woman, said their new point sys­tem is more for­giv­ing now because it allows work­ers to miss mul­ti­ple days in a row. The com­pa­ny reset all its employ­ees’ points to zero in late July, she said.

Tyson tem­porar­i­ly relaxed its point sys­tem in March but brought it back in June, even as case counts swelled.

The tim­ing of Tyson’s deci­sion was no coin­ci­dence, said Don Stull, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas who has researched meat­pack­ing for 35 years.

“As that ini­tial atten­tion being focused on the indus­try began to wane, they start­ed try­ing to run as near to pre-pan­dem­ic lev­els as they could. So they need­ed as many work­ers as they could get,” he said.

Mick­el­son, Tyson’s spokesman, said Stull’s claim was not true.

Few oth­er opportunities 

Large meat­pack­ing plants are often in rur­al areas with­out many jobs oppor­tu­ni­ties. That leaves work­ers in a bind when deal­ing with the point sys­tem, work­ers and advo­cates said.

Eric Lopez, a sales man­ag­er at U.S. Cel­lu­lar, said his moth­er works at the JBS plant in Mar­shall­town. A Mex­i­can immi­grant with no for­mal edu­ca­tion who doesn’t speak Eng­lish, she had few jobs avail­able to her in Mar­shall­town oth­er than the pork plant, he said. 

She knows peo­ple with symp­toms have con­tin­ued show­ing up to work, he said, and it’s caused her to break down after com­ing home from work because she fears catch­ing the virus.

For decades, the meat­pack­ing indus­try has relied on immi­grant, minor­i­ty and poor work­ers, a demo­graph­ic that activists and researchers said the pri­mar­i­ly white meat­pack­ing exec­u­tives have exploited. 

“Com­pa­nies are run by old, white guys who think of work­ers as a piece of machin­ery,” said Joe Hen­ry, the polit­i­cal direc­tor for the League of Unit­ed Latin Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens of Iowa, a His­pan­ic civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tion. ?“They see them as peo­ple with dif­fer­ent skin col­ors and dif­fer­ent lan­guages that they can just go ahead and treat like animals.” 

Tyson and JBS strong­ly denied this characterization.

“That is com­plete­ly untrue,” said JBS’s Richard­son, whose response echoed Tyson’s. ?“We have done every­thing pos­si­ble to both pro­tect and sup­port our team mem­bers dur­ing this chal­leng­ing time.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heather Schlitz is a senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign where she stud­ies jour­nal­ism, glob­al stud­ies and East Asian lan­guages and cul­tures. Pre­vi­ous­ly, Heather report­ed on cli­mate change and the envi­ron­ment as a Dow Jones Data Jour­nal­ism intern at AccuWeath­er and has spent three years writ­ing about sci­ence news for the stu­dent news­pa­per and the Uni­ver­si­ty News Bureau.


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The Food Industry’s Next Covid-19 Victims: Migrant Farmworkers

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Outbreaks have begun at farms around the country, thanks in large part to crowded employer-provided housing.

AVON, N.Y.—Luis Jimenez, 35, works 66 hours a week tending hundreds of calves at a dairy in upstate New York. He sends $800 home to his parents and eight siblings in Oaxaca, Mexico, every two weeks. “We want to build a house,” he says by phone. “I want my brothers and sisters to go to college.” A calf lows loudly in the background.

Jimenez is president of Alianza Agricola, an advocacy group led by migrant farmworkers. He says dozens of undocumented farmworkers in his organization are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. “If one guy gets infected, it’s easy to pass to the others because they live in the same house and come in the same car when they go to work,” he says.

The most widespread outbreak in the food system appears to be among meatpacking workers, with 15,800 documented cases linked to 193 plants, as of May 21. Wired magazine says Covid-19 thrives in the plants because of long hours, crowded workstations, “aggressive ventilation systems” and cold temperatures. But outbreaks on farms are increasing, and they disproportionately affect migrant farmworkers—at least 48% of whom are undocumented.

In These Times identified at least 349 coronavirus cases at 13 farm and agricultural sites in four states. According to farmworkers, medical personnel, advocates, lawyers and media reports, the reason lies in shared migrant housing.

Jimenez and other farmworkers live in so-called congregate living settings, also known as labor camps. Growers usually provide housing for migrants, who may travel thousands of miles for jobs. Jimenez says, on one dairy farm, “Six guys live in a small room, in three bunk beds.” It’s not a house, he says. “It’s a room attached to the farm office.”

Coronavirus outbreaks in upstate New York have hit a dairy, a nursery and a 32-acre greenhouse. At the greenhouse, run by Green Empire Farms, half of its 340 workers who tend tomatoes and strawberries tested positive, one of the state’s biggest outbreaks. According to local health officials, the grower-provided housing had four workers to a room and two to a bed in motels.

Farmworkers “are scared they will get infected and die,” Jimenez says. “We don’t have health insurance. We don’t have access to medical service.”

Woodburn is the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in Oregon—and headquarters to Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste, a 7,000-member farmworker union. “Our members work with dozens, sometimes hundreds [of workers], out in the fields, shoulder to shoulder,” says executive director Reyna Lopez, whose parents were migrant farmworkers. “They sometimes live 25 to a house. When one gets it, it spreads like wildfire.”

In central California’s Monterey County, home to the fertile Salinas Valley (with 1.4 million acres of farmland), The Mercury News reports that “unsanitary, overcrowded conditions” in congregate housing are “the perfect recipe for an outbreak.” Farmworkers account for 40% of Monterey County’s 308 confirmed cases as of May 12.

North Carolina has seen outbreaks on five farms with congregate housing. Lori Johnson, managing attorney at the farmworker unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina, says migrant farmworkers “are sharing bathrooms, they are sharing kitchens, the number of bathrooms is low.” Under state law, agribusinesses can cram workers into dorms with as little as 50 square feet per person, one shower for every 10 people and one toilet for every 15.

“The likeliness of everyone in a camp contracting Covid-19 is very high,” says Amy Elkins, an outreach worker for advocacy group NC Farmworkers Project. “The majority of our workers live in barracks with up to 120 workers sharing approximately four toilets and four showers.”

In Salem County, N.J., 59 migrant workers tested positive on one farm, where up to 100 male farmworkers reportedly live in dorms. At an orchard with employer-provided housing in Douglas County, Wash., half of the 71 farmworkers tested positive.

Early indications suggest more outbreaks among farmworkers go unreported. Former dairy worker Wilmer Jimenez, 26, organizes workers on dozens of farms in western New York with the Rural and Migrant Ministry. “The health department confirmed three farm outbreaks. … But I spoke to a lot of other farmworkers who were sick,” he says. In Yakima County, Wash., The Seattle Times reports 70 “farm and fruit-packing workers” have tested positive, but the Yakima Health District estimates about 400 total cases among agriculture workers. In May, workers at six fruit processing facilities in the county went on strike after coworkers fell ill with Covid-19, citing more than 200 health and safety violations.

With 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers traveling the United States in the coming months, overcrowded housing may take a serious toll.

“We are some of the most essential workers in the country,” says Sinthia, an immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, and one of 60,000 farmworkers who harvest the Salinas Valley during the summer peak. (Sinthia requested anonymity to protect herself, her family and her job.) “Now we have the emotional strain of having to go to work … but always thinking about what will happen with this virus.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Fawcett has reported for Truthout, The Nation and The Progressive.

About the Author: Arun Gupta is author of Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (forthcoming from The New Press).


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Trump expected to broaden foreign worker bans

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The president has already barred many foreign workers during the coronavirus pandemic, but he is facing pressure from conservatives to go further.

President Donald Trump is expected to extend and expand restrictions on foreign workers coming into the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, aiming to appease a frustrated political base as Americans try to return to work.

Immigration hardliners have been lobbying Trump to take the step, which would broaden an April executive order that barred several categories of foreign workers from entering the country for a temporary period. They argue that the directive didn’t go far enough, given the skyrocketing unemployment rate and an election only months away.

But the expected expansion risks angering business leaders who insist foreign workers are still needed, even with so many Americans out of work, to keep vital industries staffed.

To try and balance the two sides, the administration is considering limiting the number of immigrants who come to the United States for cultural exchanges — generally those hired for summer jobs at amusement parks, camps and resorts — as well as students attending U.S. colleges hired for temporary employment, according to four people, including an administration official and Republican Capitol Hill staffer involved with the discussions. It is also looking at cutting visas for skilled workers in specialty occupations and seasonal workers who work in industries that include landscaping, housekeeping and construction industries, they say.

Together, more than a 1 million immigrants annually collectively receive those visas — about 70 percent of all guest workers in the United States, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Trump is still weighing even broader restrictions, though, that would bar all categories of guest workers except those who work on farms, according to a senior DHS official. But a White House official said all decisions, including immigration, are being viewed through the lens of reopening the country, making it extremely unlikely Trump take such a sweeping step and anger business leaders.

“They’re worrying about the wrong political fallout,” complained Mark Krikorian, who serves as executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and favors the broadest restrictions.

Trump is expected to sign his second order this week, according to the four people. But they caution that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, could help lead a push to scale back the directive. It was Kushner who convinced the president in an Oval Office meeting in April to carve out business-friendly exceptions for the hundreds of thousands of temporary workers, according to two people familiar with the meeting. 

Any new order would continue to exempt health care professionals; those entering for law enforcement or national security reasons; Iraqi and Afghan nationals who work for the U.S. government; and members of the U.S. military, the DHS official said.

Trump could accomplish increased restrictions in two ways: by either suspending a visa category or by implementing incentives for companies to hire American workers, including requiring them to pay higher wages to foreign workers and to try to hire Americans first, which is not a factor for all visas.

DHS, which is advocating for the changes, and the Labor Department sent their recommendations to the White House Friday.

Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney who handled immigration issues at the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, spent Friday wrapping up his guest worker cases in anticipation of the changes next week.

Fresco said suspending the cultural exchange visa known as the J-1 would have more of a political effect than a practical one. The vast majority of J-1 visas are given to those who come to the U.S. for summer employment, which will be significantly reduced because of the coronavirus.

The administration is expected to continue to review the changes regularly, likely every 30 to 60 days, said a Republican Capitol Hill staffer familiar with the discussions. The measures could extend into the fall or even until the labor market has fully recovered or a vaccine is developed.

Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser who plays an outsized role on immigration policy, told representatives from conservative groups on an April call that Trump’s initial action will lead to more permanent limits because it cuts down on the ability of immigrants to sponsor extended family members, according to a person familiar with the call. But others say Miller and acting deputy DHS secretary Ken Cuccinelli were just trying to reassure those frustrated with Trump’s executive order.

The expected actions make it likely Trump will try to make immigration a focus of his reelection campaign, just like in 2016, when Trump promised to build a wall on the southern border and deport millions of migrants who arrived in the country illegally. In his inaugural address, Trump promised to build with American labor. “We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American,” he said.

The White House and DHS did not respond to requests for comment.

In a Fox News radio interview after Trump signed the first order, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf acknowledged the administration would be targeting temporary workers, including students from China — where the virus originated — studying in the United States. 

“We’re certainly very concerned about the number of visa programs that Chinese students can use to come into the country and study and stay, and eventually work,” Wolf told Brian Kilmeade. “We see some of these programs have been potentially abused in the past.”

The largest share of international students in the U.S. — 34 percent — come from China, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors report, a survey the State Department sponsors.

Some higher education institutions are bracing for cuts. Arizona State University’s president sent a letter to 200 CEOs urging them to contact their congressional delegations to support the visas. Two education industry groups developed a new set of talking points around the issue.

The issue has been on Miller’s agenda for years. As a Capitol Hill staffer, he helped draft a bill that targeted the visas for students and cultural exchange workers, which according to the Economic Policy Institute statistics, now equal about 450,000 people, or 27 percent of the total number of guest workers each year.

As the coronavirus outbreak initially spread, the Trump administration quietly continued to allow foreign workers to enter the country, even easing requirements for immigrants to get certain jobs — allowing electronic signatures, waiving the physical inspection of documents and extending deadlines.

Then Trump abruptly tweeted he would stop all immigration into the United States as the unemployment rate soared to nearly 15 percent. But the next day he agreed to scale it back.

Trump signed the order, blocking most people for 60 days from receiving a permanent residency visa, or green card, though he continues to process visas for hundreds of thousands of temporary employees — the largest source of immigration. He also exempted wealthy investors and spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.

Prior to that move, Trump had already restricted foreign visitors from China, Europe, Canada and Mexico and paused most routine visa processing and refugee cases — which means the actions may not have been necessary. On Sunday, Trump also barred travelers from Brazil.

Conservatives urged Trump to do more. Four senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri — sent a letter to him asking for a pause guest worker visas for 60 days to a year, “or until unemployment has returned to normal levels.” Six House members, including House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), followed with their own letter.

Hardline groups lobbied, too. NumbersUSA, which supports immigration restrictions, has been using the hashtag #expandtheban to alert supporters, specifically calling out Wolf, who once lobbied for an association that wanted to keep a visa program for foreign workers.

“With growing unemployment numbers totaling over 30 million, it is unconscionable that the Federal government continues to allow guest workers to flow in, taking jobs that would otherwise go to Americans,” wrote Dan Stein, president of Federation of American Immigration Reform May 4.

Those seeking immigration restrictions say Americans are on their side. Recent polls show a majority support a temporary pause on immigration during coronavirus.

At the same time, the business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing for temporary slots for immigrants coming to the U.S., saying companies were struggling to fill jobs as unemployment has fallen. 

About 1.6 million jobs were filled by temporary labor migrants in the United States in 2017, accounting for just more than 1 percent of the labor force, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

While there is no cap for the total number of temporary workers, there are annual limits on several individual visa categories. 

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Anita Kumar serves as White House correspondent and associate editor, covering President Donald Trump and helping organize and guide coverage for POLITICO’s White House team.


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

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

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

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

A snapshot of today’s low-wage guestworker programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Migrant Women Bring Voices to Capital

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Michelle ChenAdareli Ponce is a typical working woman in America, but her work experience is not typically “American.” Even though the products of the labor of women like her are everywhere, her story is invisible to many. As the main provider for her family back in Hidalgo, Mexico, the 31-year-old has spent years slogging away in U.S. chocolate and seafood processing facilities. Migration was her chance to escape the entrenched poverty that ensnares so many young women in her hometown, who she says are often excluded from sustainable job opportunities. But the journey has been fraught with hardship and loneliness.

This week, she and a number of other women who have worked in the U.S. on “guestworker” visas went to Washington, D.C. with the bi-national labor advocacy group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante to testify about migrant women’s struggles.

Because most migrant workers are men, Ponce said in her public testimony, “migrant women are commonly excluded and made invisible in debates about immigration.” But they make up as much as over 40 percent of the low-wage immigrant labor force, according to some estimates, and they face gender-specific problems ranging from sexual harassment on the job to the challenges of transborder motherhood.

If migrant women are missing from the immigration debate, they are also excluded from conversations about U.S. women in the workforce, which tend to dwell on white-collar problems like the gender pay gap and the corporate “glass ceiling.” Migrant women face much more basic problems: how to stave off sexual abuse and cope with long-term separation from their children, which compound issues common to migrants of all genders, like crushing poverty or heat exhaustion and toxic fumes in farm fields.

Ironically, migrant women workers have propelled opportunities for middle-class Americans. Moms who work outside of the home can better achieve work/life balance thanks to options like a migrant nanny at home or frozen seafood dinners processed by the industries fueled by migrant women’s labor.

Facing double discrimination as immigrants and women, female guestworkers like Ponce risk being tracked into especially low-paid, exploitative jobs. In this racket, everyone else gets a cut:international labor recruiters who act as shady brokers of coveted visa jobs; U.S. employers who bring in these workers to serve as cheap, “disposable” labor, and big corporations like Walmart that earn fat profits at the expense of underpaid migrants in subcontracted supply chains.

As Working In These Times has reported before, many guestworkers are near-powerless to challenge bosses over labor violations. The recent case of mass wage theft of Jamaican contract cleaning workers in Florida shows how “legal” work authorization still leaves ample opportunity for employers to violate workers’ rights and, due to fears of deportation, leaves many with little legal recourse.
Women in Hidalgo generally are willing to endure the hardship of temporary work in the U.S. Ponce says, because it’s still seen as a better opportunity than any job available to them in their community. Yet Ponce understands why many other migrant women work undocumented. Despite the enormous risks—including sexual violence on the migrant trail, and fraud and wage theft by employers—they are at least not legally indentured to a single employer or forced to return home after a set time.
Speaking through an interpreter during her visit to D.C., Ponce tells Working In These Times that for immigrant mothers, especially parents, the emotional pain of familial separation can rival economic hardships. “Women are the core of the family… In many Mexican homes, mother is also [taking the role of] the father of those children. [Migrant women] experience isolation of being far away from family, and on top of that they have to put up with the mistreatment that they suffer.” Ponce does not have children herself, but sends money home to support her sisters.
But the workers struggling within this system are finding ways to organize. Ponce now serves as an advocate with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, which campaigns in both the U.S. and Mexico for immigration reform that would expand the rights of guestworkers in many low-wage industries.
The Senate immigration reform bill proposed earlier this year respoded to some of the demands of pro-migrant advocates by offering a complex scheme to allow some guestworkers and undocumented migrants an opportunity to obtain legal residency status, with the primary interest of sating labor market demand. That would give the growing population of guestworkers a pathway to settle here with their families.
At the same time, lawmakers proposed major cuts to family reunification visas, curtailing one of the few channels of legal migration outside of the guestworker system—crossing over through the sponsorship of family members already permanently settled in the U.S. The Senate would scrap reunification visas for siblings and institute a new, streamlined visa system that would score an immigrant’s eligibility based on various criteria, such as educational attainment.

Advocates are pushing for preservation of the family reunification system and a more open, humanitarian-based legalization process. Many support the bill’s provisions to expand immigrant’ labor rights, including reforms to curb employer abuses of the guestworker system. But even with those reforms, perilous barriers to family reunification would remain. And for undocumented workers, the process for petitioning for legalization could take well over a decade and involve strict employment requirements and fines, which might foreclose opportunities for women to qualifyyet another gender barrier to setting here and reuniting with family. At the end of the day, whether they start out with papers or not, a workers’ family could take half a generation to become whole again.

That’s too long to wait for the mothers, sisters and daughters who have for years toiled in the U.S. for their families, yet no longer know what their children look like. There’s no provision in the reform bill that resolves the pain of that longing. There are only voices like Ponce’s, which have no grand legislative solutions—just an appeal for dignity in return for all they’ve given up.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on October 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.


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

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Mark E. Andersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Terror in the Fields: Migrant Women Face Sexual Violence on the Job

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Michelle Chen

There aren’t many jobs in the United States that are tougher than farmwork-—picking crops under a sweltering sun, earning just enough to survive, jumping from one unstable seasonal job to another. But the job is especially unbearable if you have to work yourself to exhaustion all day under the watch of the man who raped you.

There have over the years been numerous reports of widespread sexual abuse of women farmworkers-—everything from being called demeaning names by supervisors to brutal sexual assault. Many of the victims suffer in silence, cut off from law enforcement and social services and fearful of losing their jobs if they come forward to authorities, according to a report on sexual violence in agricultural work by Human Rights Watch.

The report, based on dozens of interviews with survivors and advocates, outlines the multiple barriers to justice that women face-—not just institutional sexism but also crippling poverty and discrimination in law enforcement. Women may feel they have little choice but to suffer humiliating treatment and abuse in order to support their families. The consequences of reporting sexual violence can be devastating for the whole household, because the boss might fire both the victim and the family members who work alongside her.

Women make up a sizable minority in a male-dominated agricultural workforce. The economic oppression that afflicts the farmworker population generally is exacerbated by a climate of gender oppression, in which women are viewed as sexual objects, and victims of abuse may face devastating social stigma even from their own community.  Single women, indigenous, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers are especially at risk, according to HRW researchers.

The testimonial of Angela G. describes how her abuse was enforced by layers of silence and impunity ingrained in the workplace culture:

In her experience, women in general were not valued by the supervisors and the foremen, but Angela reported that because she did not have a partner, she was singled out for abuse. “I was called a dyke; they said I was a lesbian…. [The supervisor] and the foreman would laugh.” She was afraid to say anything because others who had complained of sexual harassment had been fired immediately. But to listen in silence day after day caused her a great deal of pain…

Angela stayed on, however, because she wanted to get promoted, earn a higher salary, and be better able to support her family. And then one day, a supervisor asked her to come over to his house to pick up some boxes. Angela reported that after she entered the house, he raped her.

Angela said she felt powerless: “For me, it felt like an eternity. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said I should remember that it’s because of him that I have this job, and if I say anything, I’ll lose my job…. I was afraid to call the police, to do anything. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was completely blocked off.”

No one knows how often this scene is repeated every day on the vast industrial farms that have drawn hundreds of thousands of migrants. But since the migrant farm workforce is the product of federal labor, food and immigration policies, the government is at least complicit in, if not at the crux of, this system of exploitation.

Although the law should theoretically protect all women from such abuse, immigrant workers are deterred from reporting work-related sexual violence because the law tends to criminalize them rather than treat them as survivors deserving of justice. As federal and state authorities have focused on arresting and deporting the undocumented, immigrant communities have every reason to see police as a source of terror, not protection.

Although special immigration relief known as the U-Visa is available to victims of crime, advocates are concerned that the qualifications for the visa are too stringent for people who are dealing with trauma and economic hardship. Access to counseling and other services is also severely constrained by language and culture barriers that make it hard for social agencies to build trust with underserved communities.

At the same time, sexual victimization is part of a continuum of exploitation, and as long as farmworkers, whether they’re here legally or not, are excluded from equal labor and civil rights, suffering in all forms will remain an intrinsic part of the agricultural system. Grace Meng, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program who authored the report, said that while farmworkers face unique threats on the job, “a lot of the factors that make them vulnerable are true of unauthorized immigrant workers in a lot of industries.” Although special remedies like the U-Visa might help address individual violations, she said, “We think that the most practical and effective way to deal with the vulnerability of these workers and this population to crime and other abuses is to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

It should be no surprise that on America’s farms, so many women are treated as less than human, since not even the government sees them as worthy of respect under the law.

An earlier version of this article was published on Alternet.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.


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Facing Common Struggles, Domestic Workers Mobilize Across Borders

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Michelle Chen The United States isn’t unique when it comes to political and social crises related to immigration. Migrants in other parts of the world face similar, sometimes much harsher struggles. Even those who are “legal” are often extremely vulnerable to economic exploitation, racial discrimination, and physical and sexual abuse. Abuse and enslavement of migrant and domestic workers from Asia and Africa has become epidemic in the Middle East.  In the wake of the suicide of an abused Ethiopian worker, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, whose story helped galvanize migrant rights campaigns, the issue has moved into the media spotlight lately:

Justice for Alem D

Stories of migrants dying on the job or taking their own lives are not uncommon, underscoring how their lives can be undervalued once they’re swept into a “disposable” household workforce. Migrant women in particular struggle often with abusive employers and sexual harassment.

This video is part of a grassroots anti-harassment media campaign led by women in Lebanon:

Resist Harassment

Some migrant women are organizing and documenting their struggles in their own voices. One Ethiopian domestic worker-turned-filmmaker, Rahel Zegeye, has created a feature film, Beirut, which narrates the wrenching struggles of migrant women in Lebanon. In an interview with Tadias, Zegeye describes a plight that may sound familiar to domestic workers in the United States:

TADIAS: What are the biggest problems that Ethiopian domestic-workers face with their employers?

RZ: There are many. Most common issues include bad treatment, abuse from employers, no rest and no day off. It is also very common that the maids are not paid on time or at all, and that the employers limit their food or let them stay without food. Many employers are very racist and do not treat their workers with respect, dignity or humanity. Sexual harassment and abuse by employers also occurs. For example I know three girls who were made pregnant by their mister and were threatened not to tell their madam, and had to leave the house to go to the hospital to make an abortion.

TADIAS: How true are some of the horror stories we hear and read about in the media? And what can women do to protect themselves from such violence?

RZ: The horror stories are real and they occur. There are many more horror stories that are not reported and written about. There is very little protection for the women coming to work in Lebanon. She can try to communicate with her employer but many times there will be language problems and if the employer is abusive then there is little chance they will listen to her. She can ask them to let her go to the embassy and to return home. If she returns to the agency that brought her here they will not help her, just change employers, which may be for the better or for the worse. If she runs away from her employers she will not have her passport and papers and cannot go back to Ethiopia.

On the eve of May Day 2012, many migrant workers from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sudan and other countries came out from behind closed doors and took to the streets to rally for fair treatment. As with many “guestworkers” in the U.S., one of the critical policy issues tied to the systemic abuse of migrants is the structure of labor sponsorship. As legal guarantors, employers can basically impose legal shackles on workers to make it all but impossible to leave or challenge abuse.

Domestic workers across the United States, many of them women escaping hardship in their home countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, also suffer from poverty, harsh conditions and sexual abuse. And they’ve also used grassroots organizing and media to bring to public light to the injustices they suffer day-to-day on the job.

The Caring Across Generations Campaign—an initiative for home health care workers led by National Domestic Workers Alliance—has shown that here, too, giving workers a media platform to tell their own stories is crucial for educating and mobilizing the public.

Video

Last summer, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, together with migrant workers’ groups from around the world, pushed through the groundbreaking International Labour Organisation Convention for Domestic Workers. The accord codifies basic labor rights for domestic workers, including the right to organize, and sets standards for the treatment of workers in households, like a mandate for a genuine employment contract and immigration relief for victims of abuse.

But the challenge facing globalized concepts of labor rights is that they’re eclipsed by the laws of nation states. Despite campaigns for pro-migrant labor protections on the local and national level, like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights initiative, the absence of strong international standards makes workers everywhere more vulnerable. While multinationals assert corporate sovereignty over national systems, workers see their rights shredded by the sharp borders they’ve traversed.

The irony of the global economy is that the suffering comes from the two extremes of economic mobility. The workers who are stuck in Rust Belt towns, while behemoth manufacturing companies ship job overseas, find their communities devastated by “capital flight.” Meanwhile, wealthy communities absorb droves of migrants who chase the fleeting promise of higher-paying jobs—only to become ensnared in a marginal underclass. Until the workers abandoned by capital, and those held hostage by it in a foreign land—realize that their plights are interlocked, labor remains fractured across divides of language, race and politics.

Still, domestic worker campaigns show that global communications can counter global exploitation. Creative protest through film and media are forming a common language for a dialogue on migrants’ rights, breaking their silence with one collective voice.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.


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