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Protecting undocumented workers

Posted July 03, 2011, at 8:48 p.m.
Last modified July 04, 2011, at 6:51 p.m.

Nearly every day for three years, Josue Melquisedec Diaz reported to work by going to a New Orleans street corner where contractors, subcontractors and people fixing up their places went to hire day laborers. It was there, one day in 2008, that a contractor picked him up and took him to Beaumont, Texas, just across the Louisiana line, to work on the cleanup, demolition and reconstruction  projects that Beaumont was undertaking in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.

Diaz was put to work in a residential neighborhood that had been flooded. The American workers who were involved in the cleanup, he noted, had been given masks, gloves, boots and sometimes special suits to avoid infection. No such precautions were afforded Diaz and his crew of undocumented immigrant workers. “We were made to work with bare hands, picking up dead animals,” he says. “We  were working in contaminated water,” tearing down and repairing washed-out homes.

Diaz told his story last week to a gathering of legislators and others in a meeting room at the U.S. Capitol, just a few doors down from the Senate chamber. He said that he and his crew asked their boss for the same safety equipment given their American counterparts. Instead, Diaz said, the boss responded by cutting the undocumented workers’ pay in half — at which point, Diaz and 11 others went on strike. Soon after, both the local police and immigration officers showed up to haul off the workers. The strikers were first taken to a local jail then transferred to a federal immigration jail.

Fortunately, Diaz was a member of the New Orleans Congress of Day Laborers, which managed to get him and his co-workers released after four months behind bars. Since then, three of the 12 workers have been deported, one has died and Diaz faces a deportation hearing scheduled for July 20. At least until then, he is trying to publicize the cause of workers who labor in dangerous conditions, who are compelled to work long hours for no extra pay, who get cheated altogether out of their paychecks and who have, in this nation of laws, no legal recourse.

Undocumented immigrants are just one among many groups of workers who effectively lack the on-the-job protections that most Americans take for granted. When the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a national minimum wage and overtime pay, was enacted in 1938, it excluded restaurant employees and retail, domestic and farm workers. (Winning the votes of Southern senators required President Franklin D. Roosevelt to effectively exclude all occupations then largely filled by African-Americans.)

In time, the act was expanded to cover some of those workers, but agricultural laborers still have no federal legal right to collect overtime, home health-care workers have no right to the minimum wage and “tipped” workers such as waiters are entitled to a minimum of just $2.13 an hour. Nor are agricultural and domestic workers accorded the right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act (though farm workers have won this right on the state level in California), and such low-paid independent contractors as port truckers and taxi drivers are similarly excluded.

As construction workers, the Diaz 12 actually came under the protections of wage, hour and unionization laws. But employers know they can violate these laws with impunity when their workers have no union contract and are undocumented. The odds are overwhelming that the outcome of such conflicts is worker deportation, not management fines. This de facto exemption of undocumented immigrants from the protection of workplace laws actually encourages employers to hire more undocumented workers. It is easy for management to ignore labor laws when employees can’t complain.

Last week, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and California Reps. Judy Chu and George Miller introduced legislation (the POWER Act) that would give workers like Diaz provisional “U visas.” The visas were designed to provide temporary legal status to immigrant victims who come forward to report violent crimes, and the proposed legislation would expand the protection to those who come forward to report workplace violations. Such legislation, Menendez pointed out, would not only protect immigrants but keep unscrupulous employers from lowering labor standards generally. “When some workers are easy to exploit,” Menendez said, “conditions for all workers suffer.”

That’s also the message that Diaz brought to the Capitol last week. “When I was in jail, I met many workers with stories like mine, but whose voices are never heard,” he said. “I made a promise to them that I would bring their stories out with me.”

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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