L.A. County DA probes hotels’ use of refugees and asylum seekers as scabs
Hotel workers march to demand better wages, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, in Los Angeles. A new probe by the DA seeks to establish whether hotels have been using refugees and homeless migrants as scabs. | Ryan Sun / AP

LOS ANGELES—Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has opened an investigation of whether county hotels, currently in conflict with Unite HERE Local 11, are using homeless migrants, minors, asylum seekers, and refugees as scabs, particularly as hotel housekeepers when the union conducts one-day rolling strikes.

“We take these egregious allegations with the utmost seriousness,” the DA said on Oct. 23. “The mistreatment of vulnerable workers and their exploitation will not be tolerated.

“We will conduct an exhaustive investigation, working closely with Unite HERE Local 11 and other stakeholders to ensure strict compliance with labor laws and protect the rights and dignity of all workers.” The union flagged the DA to the exploitation.

Many of the workers being exploited now are being housed at the Union Rescue Mission at 545 South San Pedro Street in Los Angeles. The exploitation by the hotel owners is not the first abuse they’ve suffered.

Gascón said the exploited people originally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas, seeking asylum. There, they were picked up by Texas law enforcement and, under orders from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of the deep red state, forcibly bussed to Los Angeles and dumped there.

Abbott, along with Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has made a habit of grabbing asylum seekers and other refugees, loading them on intercity buses or flights, exporting them to “blue” cities such as New York, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles, and abandoning them there—leaving the refugees to fend for themselves.

That’s where the L.A. hotels come into the picture, Unite HERE told the DA. They hire “agencies” to contact and recruit the migrants for jobs, without telling them who they’ll work for or how much—or how little—they’ll earn. Or that they’re being used to try to break the strike by fellow workers, many if not most of them workers of color, too.

At least one minor was recruited to work in a hotel, thus missing school, the union added, violating federal and state laws banning child labor.

Sebastian, a refugee from Venezuela, told Local 11, “I entered a situation where I didn’t even know which agency was hiring me, how much I was going to earn, how many hours I was going to work, much less my rights as a worker.”

Unite HERE Local 11 Co-President Ada Briceño denounced the hotels. “The hypocrisy of the employers like Le Meridien Delfina is staggering,” Briceño said, “Thank you to District Attorney Gascón’s leadership on this issue. We will not stand by while that happens, our union is committed to continue fighting for all workers.”

State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, a former head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and also of Local 11, added California “is better than this, and we will continue to stand with these workers in Santa Monica and anywhere else they may face these awful conditions.”

“The investigation will meticulously examine the hiring practices of hotel employers in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, with a specific focus on the alleged employment of unhoused refugees,” a statement from the DA’s office says.

“Furthermore, the inquiry will comprehensively scrutinize the circumstances surrounding the transportation of these workers, including claims that some were dispatched from Texas by Gov. Abbott, while others sought refuge in Los Angeles after fleeing violence in their home countries.”

Local 11 has been staging one-day strikes, involving thousands of workers, at L.A. and Orange County hotels, for months. It’s settled with two of them. Key issues are living wages in high-cost L.A. and affordable health care.

Other than the two hotels that have settled, where the local won its workers’ demands, the hotels have barely budged in bargaining. Their latest proposal, unveiled October 6, prompted a one-day walkout at the Sheraton Gateway LAX.

The hotel bosses offered the workers there a 1% yearly raise, the local said. But it would also increase health care co-pays, from the current $20 a month for some of the most back-breaking jobs in the U.S. The bosses also would cut health care eligibility.

“We fought for decades to win exceptional healthcare for our families. Now we are fighting for a wage that allows us to live in Los Angeles,” Sheraton Gateway housekeeper Yesenia Reyes told the union. “Our selfish employers want us to choose between staying healthy and staying housed.  Meanwhile, hotel CEOs are celebrating record profits and I am balancing two full-time jobs to take care of my kids.”

“Never have I seen a more punitive, draconian proposal than what these greedy hotel owners put across the table.  They are asking workers to choose between a meager pay raise and excellent healthcare,”  said Local 11 co-president Kurt Petersen. “Our members who sacrificed everything to keep this industry alive during the pandemic have no choice but to walk out again.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.