New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice
217 N. Prieur St., New Orleans, Louisiana 70112
Phone: (615) 423-0152
ALLIANCE OF GUESTWORKERS FOR DIGNITY
February 24, 2009
Hon. Hilda Solis
Secretary of Labor
U.S. Department of Labor
Frances Perkins Building
200 Constitution Ave.
NW, Washington, DC 20210
Dear Hon. Hilda Solis,
On behalf of the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, we write to congratulate you on your confirmation. We look forward to a Department of Labor that fights for the rights and dignity of all workers, especially those most vulnerable in this economy. The Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity is a membership organization of guestworkers who were brought to the Gulf Coast after hurricane Katrina. We represent guestworkers across industry from across the world who have been organizing to defend ourselves against severe labor exploitation. We are living proof of human cost of the Bush administration’s attacks on fundamental dignity of workers.
As the guestworkers of the Gulf Coast, we urge you to take immediate action on an issue that impacts all workers at a time of economic crisis-the new regulations limiting the rights of guestworkers. When tools exist for unscrupulous employers to shop for the most exploitable workers, both foreign and U.S. workers suffer. These regulations issued by the USDOL in the final days of the Bush administration provide such a tool that is already harming our members.
Our guestworker members include some of the most vital workers in the post-Katrina gulf coast economy- the housekeepers and front desk clerks in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the welders and pipefitters of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the strawberry and sugar cane harvesters of Louisiana. We come from countries around the globe, including Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and India. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we and thousands of other guestworkers were recruited with false promises to work in the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. In order to realize our dreams, we relied on these promises and plunged our families into deep debts- borrowing from banks, family members and money lenders that charge high interest rates. We had the hope that we could pay back these debts based on the false promise from U.S. employers and their recruiting agents. What we didn’t know was that we were only going to find broken promises, inhumane housing conditions, insecure work, exploitation and discrimination by our employers. The worst part of it all, however was that our visa tied us to one employer so that we had to accept everything without complaint or face retaliatory return to our home countries deeply in debt.
In response to this exploitation we have organized and fought back. The housekeepers and front desk clerks of Decatur Hotels organized to force their employer, a major New Orleans hotel tycoon, to treat them with dignity. When the employer illegally fired their organizer, the workers organized again to collectively demand his reinstatement. The welders and pipefitters of Signal International went on a Ghandian satyagraha and hunger strike to expose manipulation of the guestworker program as part of a transnational human trafficking scheme. The strawberry pickers of Bimbo’s Best Produce and their allies conducted a citizens’ arrest of a Louisiana grower who was illegally holding their passports triggering an FBI investigation.
We saw clearly how we were being used to undermine African American and other local gulf coast workers because of these obstacles to exercising fundamental labor rights- the right to organize, the right to minimum wage, and the right to be free from discrimination. Together we work across traditional divisions of country, race, and industry to support each other in demanding dignity and justice in our workplaces and just and policies in our home countries and here in the United States. We know that to demand the dignity and rights that we deserve, we must work together collectively. Even then, many of our members have been illegally terminated when they try to enforce their fundamental rights.
On Feb. 11, 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled Decatur Hotels was not required to reimburse guestworkers for thousands of dollars in fees they paid to obtain jobs in luxury hotels in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Decatur Hotel certified that U.S. workers were unavailable for these jobs at a time when its hotels were full of Katrina evacuees and its business was grossing record profits.) Relying on statements by the Bush administration’s Department of Labor in its last days in power, this decision conflicts with the Eleventh Circuit and every other lower federal court that has ruled on the issue and with the Department of Labor’s longstanding interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
This new rule will exacerbate the debt and will leave guestworkers more vulnerable and exploitable than before- human beings with less value and without the same rights as others. Our crushing debts to recruiters and employer agents block us as guestworkers from protecting our fundamental labor rights, including our right to organize. While the new regulations prohibit employers or recruiters from collecting fees as a condition of employment, they rely on the employer to vouch no such fees have been collected. There is also no requirement that employers reimburse transportation costs, passports and visa and inspection fees. Further, no process is provided for these workers or their advocates to intervene when there are fee abuses. The lack of enforcement mechanism exposes this for what it is- a gift to abusive employers masquerading as reform.
For these reasons, we reject the DOL’s change in policy implemented clandestinely in the ultimate days of the Bush administration that leaves guestworkers even more vulnerable and exploitable than before. At a time of global economic despair, we need Congress and the Administration to lead the way in enacting sound policies that do not undermine the labor rights of temporary workers or of U.S. workers. The USDOL should strengthen and enforce its positions making employers responsible for their costs in using the program, that strengthen workers’ right to organize, and that include real enforcement mechanisms. Instead of undermining core labor rights-like the Fair Labor Standards Act- the USDOL should eliminate obstacles to the right to organize-complementing protections included in the Employee Free Choice Act- for all workers in the U.S. regardless of their immigration status. These protections block employers from exploiting workers who can’t fight back because of debt and exclusion from legal protections and enforcement mechanisms-they are necessary to protect both U.S. and foreign workers.
As the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, we ask for the following immediate actions to protect us and other guestworkers, our home communities, and U.S. workers blocked from fair jobs by workers trapped in a cycle of exploitation:
- The Obama Administration’s USDOL should publicly reject and refuse to enforce the introduction to the regulations changing the USDOL’s longstanding position that point of hire travel and visa costs are for the primary benefit and convenience of the employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
- The Obama Administration’s USDOL should appoint a special team of labor inspectors to the Gulf Coast that reports directly to the Secretary of Labor. These inspectors should receive special training and have the language capacity to respond on an emergency basis to guestworkers who report severe labor exploitation.
- The Secretary of Labor and other high level officials should meet with guestworkers who been imported to the United States Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina in order to hear three years worth of testimony about severe labor exploitation resulting from manipulation of the current guestworker program and the failure to enforce existing labor protections. Testimony would also focus on the direct impact of the impact of the Bush Administration’s attacks on guestworkers and their effects undermining of U.S. workers.
- The Obama Administration’s USDOL should work closely with the Obama Administration to expand and protect the right of guestworkers and all workers to organize including protections included in Employee Free Choice Act.
- The Obama Administration’s USDOL should put the Bush Administration’s guestworker regulations on hold and start a new process to make rules that address the real protections guestworkers need including blocks to debt servitude and the right to organize.
- The Obama Administration’s USDOL should commit the USDOL to playing a role in the Obama Administration’s development of a migration policy that ensure that foreign workers and families can enter the United States into dignified life and work, without being pitted against U.S. workers.
Daniel Castellanos Contreras
Organizer and Founding Member
The Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity