CIRS Blog about Rural California

By Megan Beaman and Kevin Kish

 

Low-wage workers—regardless of immigration status—shoulder more than their fair share of workplace violations, including unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination and harassment. Immigrant low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable—working under constant fear that if they exercise basic workplace rights, they will suffer retaliation that could result in the separation of their families; loss of homes and property; or return to violence or extreme poverty in their home countries.

 

mbeaman post

 

This fear of retaliation is based in fact. We as advocates have seen it happen time and time again—and it overwhelmingly leads to workers staying silent, leaving employers without even a slap on the wrist when they break the law.

 

Scofflaw employers do not and will not stop violating the law if they are not held accountable for their violations to all workers. Any other type of piecemeal enforcement, or lack of enforcement, encourages employers to hire vulnerable undocumented workers, disregard labor laws as basic as the minimum wage, and then fire them when they complain – all to the economic disadvantage of employers who do follow the law.

Earlier this summer, the California Supreme Court in the Salas v. Sierra Chemical Company case agreed, deciding that companies that hire undocumented workers (knowingly or not) do not get a free pass to discriminate against them.

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By Lily Dayton

In the foothills of the Pajaro Valley, dozens of nursery workers dressed in jeans and work boots file into a warehouse. It’s just past lunchtime on a weekday. Normally the workers would be heading back to the white-tented greenhouses to tend to the broccoli, chard and kale shoots that grow from nursery flats, but today they are attending the final presentation of Speedling Incorporated’s Safety Week, a workshop on sexual harassment and assault.

“Today we are going to talk about a topic that is taboo in many cultures,” Maria Barranco says in Spanish. Barranco is the prevention program manager of Monarch Services, a domestic and sexual violence prevention agency in Santa Cruz County.

Most of the 45 employees in attendance are men, ranging in age from just barely adult to grizzled middle age. But several women sit among the group. Everyone is engaged, listening intently to Barranco and four prevention specialists—all dressed in matching black shirts with a “Campos Seguros” (Spanish for “safe fields”) logo on the front. On their backs, the shirts read “Lives free from violence and abuse.”

When Barranco asks, “Does anyone know what sexual harassment is?” several workers raise their hands. One man says, “It’s when you touch someone or talk to them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.”

This workshop is a field test of the format that Monarch’s Campos Seguros program is currently using to develop a nine-week series to educate agricultural workers about sexual violence prevention. The workshop series will pilot in the fall, and there will be separate programs for men, women and children.

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By Lily Dayton

Salinas resident Maricruz Ladino was all too familiar with harassing comments and sexual innuendos tossed around by her co-workers and supervisors while working for over a decade in the agricultural industry. But when she started a job at a Salinas lettuce packing plant in 2005, the harassment escalated. Her supervisor began making sexual advances, she says, insinuating that if she didn’t succumb to his sexual demands he would fire her. Then, one day the supervisor drove her to an isolated field—supposedly to inspect the crops. Instead, Ladino says, he raped her.

“I kept quiet for a long time,” she says in Spanish, explaining how she was afraid to speak out—afraid her supervisor might hurt her more, afraid no one would believe her, afraid of losing her job. As a single mother raising three young daughters on her own, she desperately needed the income to survive. But the abuse continued until she couldn’t take it anymore.

“Finally I said, ‘No más,’” she says, her gaze unfaltering. “I had to speak because, even though I might die, he was going to pay for what he was doing to me.”

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In the last fiscal year alone, 368,644 immigrants were removed from the United States. Since 2009, the number of deported immigrants is more than 1.9 million and as deportation rates have increased throughout the Obama administration, President Obama, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) have received harsh criticism for their immigration enforcement policies. At his 2013 year-end press conference Obama said, “immigration reform is probably the biggest thing I wanted to get done this year.” Even if federal legislation continues to stall, 2014 marks 50 years since the termination of the Bracero Program and as we revisit the Bracero period, we have the opportunity to honor the tremendous labor sacrifices of both the Braceros and the immigrant farmworkers that serve as the backbone of America's agricultural economy.

Bracero

From the Spanish word “brazo,” meaning “arm,” the Braceros were 4.6 million Mexican nationals who worked legally in the United States from 1942-1964 under the largest guest worker program in U.S. history, the Bracero Program, formally known as the Mexican Farm Labor Program. In 1942 The United States began negotiations with the Mexican government to temporarily bring Mexican men into the country to fill the World War II labor shortage. The Braceros worked to build and repair America’s railroads but the majority worked as field laborers in agriculture. These Unsung Heroes supported America’s war effort by providing food aid for the Allied Forces and following World War II, the number of Braceros working in agriculture expanded far beyond the number of workers used during the war.

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It has been 23 years since workers at a massive farming company in Fresno, Calif., led by labor icon Cesar Chavez, organized and voted to have the United Farm Workers union represent them.

Certifying a union does not guarantee a contract, and in the decades since the UFW came to Gerawan Farming, laborers have picked and sorted peaches and grapes without one. As the years have passed, many of the Gerawan workers who worked to unionize have moved on.

It has been so long that, just as a contract finally appeared to be forthcoming this year, some workers clamored to strip the UFW of its right to represent Gerawan workers. While union officials contend workers were prodded by management, the workers who repudiate the UFW ask where the union has been all these years.

"We got surprised because we never knew the union" represented us, said Silvia Lopez, a 15-year employee who has organized the UFW decertification campaign. "So many years working here, and then they show up and say they have a union there."

The situation at Gerawan is raising questions about whether California's landmark agricultural labor law, a signature achievement of Gov. Jerry Brown's first tenure, is working as intended to expedite contract disputes.

 

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