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Foreign Farm Workers Already Face Abusive Conditions. Now Trump Wants to Cut Their Wages.

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Pedro, a laborer from Chiapas, Mexico, worked 13 hours a day picking blueberries on a farm in Clinton, North Carolina. He had no time off, except when it rained.

“We had no Sundays,” Pedro (a pseudonym to protect his identity after he breached his visa agreement) says in Spanish. Working from May to June under the H-2A visa program for guest farmworkers, he saved only $1,500.

According to Pedro, his work conditions and payment violated the contract he signed when he was recruited by a middleman in Mexico. Still, he could not quit his job. The H-2A program requires guest farmworkers to work only for the employer or association that hires them. 

Pedro was entitled to a $12.67 per hour wage with no overtime, according to the H-2A provisions for North Carolina. However, Pedro says he never received more than $425 a week, or about $4.60 per hour.

“They took away our passport as soon as we arrived,” Pedro explains. His employer tried to dissuade Pedro and his workmates from quitting the job. Still, he ran away, leaving his passport behind. 

“Never in my life [have I] worked this hard, not in Mexico City or back in the fields in Chiapas,” Pedro says. Undocumented and with no official identification, Pedro now works at a construction site in Georgia. “All the other guys stayed in the farm,” he says. “They are afraid of being deported. They don’t want to get in trouble.”

Pedro’s story is all too common. The wage provisions in the H-2A program are “routinely” violated, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Farmworker Justice, and, as a recent Center for American Progress report put it, the lack of labor protections for foreign farmworkers like Pedro are already “particularly dangerous.” The H-2A program has led to so much abuse of workers that many liken it to modern-day slavery.

Now, things could get even grimmer, as the Trump administration is proposing to reduce the statutory pay rate for H-2A workers, just months ahead of the presidential elections. 

Workers’ wages are already “extremely low by any measure, even when compared with similarly situated nonfarm workers and workers with the lowest levels of education,” an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report found in April.

Wage cuts

North Carolina is among the top recruiters of H-2A guest workers in the United States. The state, like the rest of the country, has grown increasingly dependent on this labor force. Nationwide, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of H-2A visas approved since 2005, climbing to 258,000 in 2019. Most of these workers are Mexicans or Mexican-Americans. 

The growing reliance on H-2A visa farmworkers is often linked to a shortage of local labor, even among the undocumented population that comprises at least half of the U.S. agricultural workforce. The reality could be more problematic.

H-2A visa holders “are seen by employers as very productive. Employers often say they are better workers than the locals, but it has nothing to do with their performance,” according to Bruce Goldstein, president of the farmworkers’ rights group Farmworker Justice. “It has to do with the fact that the H-2A visa workers are not free.”

Even undocumented workers, who are not necessarily tied contractually to their employers in the same way as H-2A workers, have more legal recourses to obtain compensation if they claim workplace abuse, according to Goldstein. H-2A workers are excluded from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), the main labor law that protects farmworkers. That’s why, he says, H-2A guest workers are “very desirable by employers.”

To satisfy the agriculture industry’s desire for guest workers, the Trump administration, contradicting its anti-immigration stance, relaxed the rules around H-2A hiring and exempted farmworkers from a broad ban on foreign labor during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, the U.S. Department of Labor is considering publishing changes that would recalculate guest workers’ wages. According to Goldstein and to publicly posted information, the changes could come as early as August

Instead of using a labor market survey, the proposal would allow farms to hire workers at an “arbitrarily lower wage rate,” according to Farmworker Justice. In Florida, for example, the $11.71 per hour wage would be cut by $3.15. 

Though Congress could stop these changes, the Republican-led Senate makes this a remote possibility. Another option is taking the administration to court, although the outcome would be far from certain, Goldstein explains.  

“The only rational explanation for lowering the wages of H-2A farmworkers right now is corporate greed and unquestioning subservience to agribusiness on the part of the Trump administration,” according to the EPI report. 

If implemented, the wage cut would come even as farm owners received as much as $23.5 billion in federal aid due to the pandemic.

The new guidelines would mean that workers deemed “essential” and expected to keep working amid the pandemic, would risk their lives for even less money and no mandate for employers to provide them with Covid-19 protections.

Unfree labor

Violations of the H-2A visa holders’ rights are “rampant and systemic,” according to a 2015 Farmworker Justice report. The Department of Labor “frequently approves illegal job terms in the H-2A workers’ contracts,” its findings show.

Five years after the report, the guest workers’ conditions remain unchanged, according to Goldstein. They are similar to the ones under the Bracero Program—through which millions of Mexican farmworkers labored in the US from 1942 to 1964—which was ultimately terminated because of its notorious abuses, including wage theft, according to the report.

Even when employers comply with the contract obligations, H-2A farm laborers are among the nation’s lowest-paid workers. The Covid-19 pandemic has made their jobs even more dangerous

Farm owners are not mandated by the federal government to provide protective equipment or enforce social distancing in often overcrowded and unsanitary housing facilities, despite the risks to foreign workers’ health, according to Anna Jensen, executive director of the nonprofit North Carolina Farmworkers Project. (State guidelines vary across the country.)

It’s not unusual that laborers are only given one option to buy food, regularly overpriced, or that workers cannot receive visitors, says Jensen. It’s also common that the employers do not reimburse H-2A workers for traveling to the U.S., she adds, a practice that is very often illegal.

The violations often start in the hiring process. Two of the former deputy directors of the North Carolina Growers Association, the largest recruiter of H-2A farmworkers in the state, pleaded guilty in 2015 of fraud related to the program. Another infamousNorth Carolinian farmworker recruiter, Craig Stanford Eury Jr., also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

Many H-2A workers, who aspire to return to the U.S. farms in the following seasons, do not mention their mistreatment for fear of being blacklisted by employers. But even if they wanted to, filing complaints “is really difficult,” Jensen says.

The North Carolina Department of Labor operates a complaint hotline, open only from 8:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, making it “not very accessible” for many migrant workers, according to Jensen. Twelve to 14-hour workdays, six or seven days a week, make filing a claim virtually impossible for guest farmworkers.

“The H-2A is an inherently abusive program,” Goldstein says. It practically assures employers that even workers who do not stand the poor treatment will not complain, even when their passports are taken away, which could be considered an act of slavery or peonage, according to Goldstein. 

If the Trump administration follows through with its plans, workers like Pedro could be forced to labor under these conditions while taking home even less money than they already make.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York.


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Trump expected to extend limits on foreign workers

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The executive order, blocking most people from getting permanent residency, will stretch restrictions through the end of the year.

President Donald Trump is expected to extend through the end of the year foreign-worker restrictions that were initially enacted in April because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Trump will expand on the executive order blocking most people from receiving a permanent residency visa, or green card, by including most guest workers who come to the United States for temporary or seasonal work. That will encompass skilled workers in specialty occupations, executives, and seasonal workers who work in industries such as landscaping, housekeeping and construction, according to the two people, as well as a Department of Homeland Security official. Agricultural workers and students will not be included.

The new order is expected to continue to have broad exemptions, including for health care professionals and those entering for law enforcement or national security reasons, which will be expanded to include those with economic interests. New exemptions will probably include au pairs.

We’re going to be announcing something tomorrow or the next day on the visas,” Trump told Fox News on Saturday. “You need them for big businesses where they have certain people that have been coming in for a long time, but very little exclusion and they’re pretty tight.”

The end-of-the-year extension makes it likely that the president 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.

Conservatives and hard-line immigration groups had been urging Trump to do more for months, contending that the initial order didn’t go far enough because of the skyrocketing unemployment rate and an election only months away. Four Republican senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri — sent a letter to the president asking for a pause in guest worker visas for 60 days to a year, “or until unemployment has returned to normal levels.” Six House members, including the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), followed with their own letter.

Trump’s first executive order, signed in April, is due to expire on Monday. It’s unclear whether he will sign one or two additional orders. The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

The new executive order will probably anger business leaders who insist that foreign workers are still needed, even with so many Americans out of work, in order to keep vital industries staffed.

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 that he would stop all immigration into the U.S. as the unemployment rate soared to nearly 15 percent. But the next day he agreed to scale it back.

Trump has already restricted foreign visitors from China, Europe, Brazil, Canada and Mexico, and paused most routine visa processing and refugee cases — meaning the new actions may not have been necessary. 

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 21, 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. Kumar joined POLITICO in 2019 after covering the White House for McClatchy’s chain of newspapers for six years. She reported on Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016 and Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.


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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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Layoffs have high stakes for foreign nationals and their employers

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As society reacts to the spread of COVID-19, businesses are making difficult decisions. Despite the government’s interventions to encourage continuity in the workforce, unemployment is at historic rates and still rising.

This creates high stakes for employers of foreign nationals. The inflexible regulatory scheme governing such employment did not anticipate COVID-19.  It’s important to approach layoffs, hours reductions, and furloughs with a concrete plan: the impact on foreign workers must be taken into account before your company takes action.

Temporary Furloughs and Reductions in Hours Worked

The H-1 and E-3 visa categories require the filing of a Labor Condition Application (LCA) with the Department of Labor and are governed by DOL wage regulations.  An employer must pay these employees the greater of (1) the actual wage rate paid by the employer to all other individuals with similar experience and qualifications for the specific job, or (2) the prevailing wage for the occupational classification in the geographic area of intended employment.  This required wage must be paid, even if the employee is not performing work and is in a nonproductive status.  The temporary furlough of such an employee would therefore lead immediately to a violation of the LCA and a potential claim by the employee against the company.  Reductions in hours worked could also lead to LCA violations where the LCA was based on full-time employment.

There is no easy way out of this problem.  Foreign national employees may not be treated better than U.S. workers, so exempting them from such measures is not an option.  An employer’s only choice may be to amend an H-1B petition to reflect the change in working conditions, which is expensive and cumbersome, or to terminate the foreign national’s employment outright.

This situation is much more flexible for foreign workers not in H-1B, H-1B1 or E-3 status.  Such employees may generally be treated the same as U.S. workers without the need to amend an underlying visa petition.

Permanent Layoffs

Immigration regulations require employers of individuals in the H-1, L-1 and O-1 visa categories to immediately notify USCIS of material changes in the terms and conditions of employment.  What constitutes a material change is not always clear, but termination of employment is plainly material.  Written notice to USCIS would be sufficient for all except H-1B employees.

Employers of terminated H-1B employees – whether through layoff or otherwise — must notify USCIS immediately by withdrawing the H-1B petition.  The employer must also offer to repatriate the employee — pay the cost of the employee’s trip home if the employee chooses to depart the U.S.

F-1/STEM OPT Issues

There are also certain obligations for employers of F-1 nonimmigrant students who are employed pursuant to STEM OPT work authorization.  The STEM OPT period is governed by the Form I-983 training plan, which contains an employer certification.  Among other things, the Form I-983 includes the student’s salary and the agreed-upon number of hours worked per week.  The employer is responsible for notifying the student’s Designated School Official (DSO) regarding any material change to the training plan, including any reduction in compensation or any significant decrease in hours worked per week.  The employer also must notify the DSO within five business days of the termination of the student during the authorized STEM OPT period.

Permanent Residency Issues

If the company has filed an immigrant petition, or I-140, or an employee who is laid off, the employer should withdraw the I-140 petition.  However, the employee may be able to join a new employer and maintain the benefit of the prior approved I-140 petition and the established priority date, so long as the I-140 petition has been approved for at least 180 days.

Layoffs may affect not only the individual employee(s) laid off, but they can also have a significant effect on the green card process for other employees as well.  If the company has had a layoff within the last six months in the area of intended employment of the PERM job or a related job, the employer may not be able to file the PERM application.  This may delay the filing of PERM applications for employees, and may prevent the employer from sponsoring an employee for a green card altogether if the employee does not have sufficient time remaining in their nonimmigrant status.

In this tumultuous time, if your business is being forced to consider layoffs or if you are a foreign national employee who has been recently laid off, be sure to speak with an immigration attorney that is well versed in the nuances of both the regulations and these unusual circumstances.

Printed with permission.

About the Author: Leslie Ditrani is Co-Managing Partner of Chin & Curtis, LLP and has been practicing immigration law for more than 25 years. Working closely with employers to hire and retain talent, she and the firm represent a wide range of enterprises from start-ups and entrepreneurs to large, multi-national businesses. Leslie is known for her broad expertise in business and family immigration matters, and her dedication to finding creative and effective solutions.


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Workers Hold Key to Reigniting Egypt’s Revolution

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Michelle ChenTo commemorate the first anniversary of the overthrow of the dictatorship, activists in Egypt called for a general strike earlier this month. But compared to the massive uprising of 2011, the response on the ground was muted. The military regime that has succeeded Hosni Mubarak was predictably dismissive of the anti-government “plotters,” and even activists acknowledged what seems to be a sort of protest fatigue.

But a year ago, when the Arab Spring was still fresh, labor activists were on the frontlines across Egypt, leading a massive wave of strikes and demonstrations. Today many ordinary Egyptians appear deflated or disilllusioned. With the new political structure divided between Islamist factions and a military junta, the country may be drifting back toward the familiar trade-off between democratic aspirations and political stability.

Reuters reported:

It was business as usual at Cairo’s railway station and airport. Buses and the metro ran as normal and an official said the strike call had no impact on the Suez Canal…

“We are hungry and we have to feed our children,” said bus driver Ahmed Khalil, explaining why he was not taking part in the labor action called by liberal and leftist groups, together with some student and independent trade unions.

“I have to come here every morning and work. I don’t care if there is a strike or civil disobedience,” he said.

The tepid response doesn’t necessarily suggest people have given up on systemic change, but it does represent the challenges of sustaining hope in the face of state oppression and economic crisis. At this stage, worker-led initiatives might again provide a vital boost, but activists haven’t yet channeled workers’ everyday grievances into a comprehensive political vision.

Noting that workers are often not politically organized, even if they’re willing to strike, Hossam el-Hamalawy, journalist and organizer with the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists, told In These Times:

The general strike was successful in the universities because of the existence of independent student unions and student groups on the ground that could mobilize for this. In the case of the workers, we do not have (yet) either an independent trade union federation or a labor party that could pull this together. General strikes cannot be organized via Facebook calls.

But labor was a vibrant force of dissent in Egypt long before the Arab Spring. Worker-activists were involved both in the nationalist movements of the early-twentieth century and later on, in struggles under the authoritarian rule that was enforced by the state union apparatus. When neoliberal policies took hold of the economy during the 1970s, workers confronted a convergence of capitalist exploitation and state repression, fraught with low wages, gender discrimination and crackdowns on labor organizing.

The upheaval that began last January was in some ways an extension of this tradition. In his research on Egypt’s labor movement (published in an AFL-CIO Solidarity Center report), historian Joel Beinin has documented hundreds upon hundreds of strikes and protests over the past several years. Uprisings often responded directly to workplace conflicts, with particularly strong mobilization in the textile industry and public sector. The pattern of wildcat strikes continued in 2011.

Still, more radical opposition movements haven’t deeply engaged the working class. Though groups like the Revolutionary Socialists push class-struggle rhetoric and pro-worker economic and labor policies, their image is still affiliated with the intelligensia.

Beinin told ITT that, since civil society was so suppressed under authoritarian rule, many workers today–

aren’t used to sitting down and talking about politics and the country in a reasoned, logical kind of way… What they do is they [say], “Our management is corrupt, it was a crime to sell this public sector enterprise to these private investors who then reneged on their contractual obligations anyway–things like that. They don’t usually say, “The problem is, the IMF and the World Bank are trying to shape the Egyptian economy along vicious, vulture, private-sector capitalist lines.”

In the process of building a grassroots political movement, he noted, “There’s been this problem of trying to get workers in general to believe that there is a broader problem than whatever the issues are at their workplace.”

While workers are consumed with immediate problems of economic instability and unemployment, labor activists struggle to find unity as organizations jostle for representation in the fractious post-Mubarak political landscape. Meanwhile, reactionary political forces and state violence have narrowed the public sphere for dissent.

Yet new pro-labor coalitions are emerging–across sectors, political communities, and even national boundaries (though collaboration with international civic groups remains intensely controversial). In areport on a recent Egyptian trade union conference, Ben Moxham of the UK-based Trades Union Congress observed promising diversity among the participants, including women and rural workers:

What impressed me greatly is that these folks aren’t waiting for some legislative silver bullet to deliver a union movement to them. They are going out there and making it under laws that haven’t changed since Hosni Mubarak owned the country.

Kamal Abbas, leader of the advocacy group Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, reflected with cautious optimism on the prospects for strengthening independent unions and worker-led movements in June 2011 interview with Toward Freedom: “The challenge now that the revolution has succeeded is to be able to build a society of social justice.”

Months later, that vision is shadowed by a creeping sense of frustration and futility, especially among struggling communities that, for now, are more focused on survival than on political ideals. Egyptians haven’t given up on their revolution, but to bring people back to Tahrir Square, labor and activist groups need to rekindle faded solidarity on the ground level, before the counter-revolution stamps out its last embers.

This blog post originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at [email protected]


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‘There Is Not Enough Work’: Nearly Half of Mexicans Now Officially Poor

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Stephen FranklinOAXACA, MEXICO—The night is long and lonely and taxi driver Fernando has no choice but to endlessly troll the streets. It is the only way he can earn a living, driving from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. seven nights a week, and even then it’s barely enough to get by. “It is difficult. The salaries are low. There is not enough work. And everything is more expensive,” says the middle-aged driver as he cruises the streets of this historic southern Mexican city.

The latest figures about poverty and Mexican workers’ fate show that he understands the nation’s financial reality as well as any economist. The ranks of Mexico’s poor grew from 48.8 to 52 million between 2008 and 2010, according to figures recently released by the National Council for Social Development Policy, a federally funded agency. That meant about 46 percent of more than 112 million Mexicans were living in poverty in 2010. The government says someone is poor if they earn less than $181 a month in an urban area, and $113 in a rural area.

But the growth in poverty was uneven, according to news reports. Much of the increase was spread across large cities and in the northern states. And Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, was one of the five states with the greatest increases in poverty.

What caused the upward spiral in despair?
Unemployment, low wages and rising food costs are the answers offered by most experts.

The growing poverty, experts add, is a reason for a number of problems such as high dropout rates among youths, and many youngsters’ northward flight to the United States in search of work.

A recent study pointed to poverty as a major reason why youths between 15 and 29 years old accounted for more than two thirds of the 660,000 Mexicans who left the country in 2011. The report was produced by a research arm of the PRI, which had ruled Mexico for seven decades and is hoping to win back the Mexican presidency this year. It was based upon figures from the Mexican Ministry of Education, according to the daily newspaper LaJornada.

Backing up the point that low-wage jobs are a growing dilemma and disruptive force for the economy is another report from the Mexican Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.

It showed that the country lost 257,000 higher-paying jobs in 2011 while it picked up 625,000 jobs barely paying above the minimum wage, according to the daily newspaper Mileno. The minimum wage for 2012 is 63 pesos (about $4.80) a day in the Mexico City area, a rate slightly higher than elsewhere in the country.

But these low-paid workers are not in the worst shape, the article noted. There were about 5 million workers in Mexico last year who did not receive a salary. They get just enough money to survive.

Driving a taxi on the nightshift gives Fernando enough to support his family of five. But it is barely enough to pay the costs of his 20-year-old who is in the local university or to buy all the things needed for a two-year-old.

He came back to Mexico not too long from Atlanta, Ga., where he had lived for a handful of years, working as a welder and earning $18 an hour. He lived without papers and didn’t mind the dangers he faced. The money was worth the risks.

What brought him home was his wife’s hunger to be close to family, a desire he easily understands. But he also understands the difference in his life style and the pain he feels for what more he wants for himself and his family.

And so, as he drives across the cobblestones and then the broad avenues, he wonders aloud about going back north. There’s not the slightest fear in his voice of what that could mean. There’s only the memory of doing better.

“We’ll see. This is so hard,” he says.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for theChicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans(2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail [email protected]


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