September 5, 2008

Labor Day Provided Little to Celebrate for U.S. Latinos

By Haider Rizvi
OneWorld US

A vast majority of Latino workers in the United States are forced to work for long hours and low wages with no health care or any other benefits, says a new study published this week.

The report, entitled, “Labor Day 2008: A Snapshot of the Latino Workforce,” shows that most Latinos are employed in occupations that frequently fall short on critical indicators of job quality, including employer-based health and retirement plans.

According to the National Council of La Raza, a rights advocacy group that released the study on the eve of Labor Day, there are over 20 million Latinos currently working in the United States.

Researchers associated with the group say those workers account for more than 14 percent of the United States’ total labor force. Yet, for most, medical treatment and job safety remain a distant dream.

There are about 12 million undocumented workers in the United States who perform all kinds of blue-collar jobs, most of whom come from neighboring Mexico and other countries in Latin America.

The report’s findings show that nearly 1,000 Latinos were killed on the job in 2006 — the highest fatality rate of all racial and ethnic groups.

On May 1, 2006, millions of Latino workers took to the streets of New York, Los Angeles, and other major towns and cities across the nation to press for changes in immigration laws and improved treatment of immigrants in the United States.

During that historic protest, many Latino and other immigrant laborers walked off their jobs to demand fair wages and improved working conditions.

Research shows that many immigrant laborers from Latin America and other countries do not stand up for their rights in the work place, in large measure because they are afraid of immigration police and possible imprisonment or deportation.

In the past few years, the George W. Bush administration has led efforts to push for policy changes that would make it harder for undocumented immigrants to stay and work in the United States.

However, strong resistance from rights groups and some in Congress has stalled those efforts for the time being, though construction of a large new wall has begun along the U.S.-Mexico border.

So far, only the Green Party has offered a coordinated opposition to legislative proposals that target undocumented immigrant workers. The Green Party says it wants an end to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in part because the economic policies it has spawned are creating huge economic disparities in Mexico and forcing workers to flee to the United States to find blue-collar jobs.

The abusive and discriminatory treatment of Latinos is not something that is only experienced by those who have no documents. There are many cases where Latino workers with valid immigration documents have also suffered from abusive practices.

About two weeks ago, using a procedure set up in the labor side agreement to NAFTA, some Mexican and U.S. groups jointly submitted a document to the Mexican government detailing the frequent exploitation of workers brought into the United States by their employers on temporary work visas.

The submission follows up on a complaint the workers filed in 2005. The workers say they have suffered brutal physical injury, stolen wages, and unsafe housing. They describe their inability to enforce their rights through the federal and state labor departments, and to obtain access to the civil legal aid they need t o seek redress.

Last October, in response to the workers’ initial complaint, Mexico asked the United States 69 sets of detailed questions regarding the extent to which state and federal laws, courts, and agencies protect the employment rights of the workers, all of whom were lawfully present in the United States on “H2B” temporary visas for unskilled, non-agricultural workers.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, although the federal Departments of Labor and Homeland Security are charged with administering the H2B visa program, neither accepts responsibility for ensuring that employers live up to the promises they make to the workers they recruit.

“Although the Department of Labor does pursue some worker complaints regarding wage and hour violations, it is slow to act,” said the Brennan Center’s Laura K. Abel. “Alarmingly, this spring the Department of Labor proposed regulations to further weaken its ability to protect the rights of H2B workers.”

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