Secretary of Labor Solis signs migrant workers rights agreements with Latin American countries

On Monday August 29, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis signed agreements with three more Latin American countries (for a total of six) on the protection of certain rights of migrant workers. The right wing is, predictably, yelling “betrayal”.

The three countries with which agreements were signed are El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua are already signatories, and their ambassadors attended the signing ceremony.

The agreements do not create any new rights. They merely positively assert that workers from the countries involved have the right to work with their own embassies and consulates to deal with violations of U.S. labor law, and that the U.S. Department of Labor will coordinate with consular personnel of the signatory countries.

It is estimated that there are between 10 and 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today, of whom at least 7 million are in the work force. They are frequently subjected to abusive and even illegal employment conditions by their employers and supervisors, because their rights as workers are unenforceable: The undocumented immigrant who complains to the government about violations, including of occupational health and safety and wages and hours regulations, is likely to be turned over to the immigration authorities (Immigration and Customs Enforcement.) and deported. In at least one case that this writer recalls, a complaint by immigrant workers to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) by immigrant workers led to a visit by not only OSHA safety inspectors, but Immigration and Naturalization Service (as the immigration enforcement agency of that time was called) agents as well. Under such circumstances, immigrant workers are not likely to file complaints.

The fact that undocumented workers are so vulnerable to extreme exploitation is harmful to U.S. citizen and legal resident workers as well. U.S. immigration policy has not helped as for now; immigrant workers pushed out of their jobs by government programs like E-Verify (electronic verification of immigration status of workers by employers) generally end up working in worse jobs with lower pay and even more outrageous working conditions, which pulls down standards for everybody.. The immigrants’ rights movement and its labor allies have been calling for the government to attack the problem super-exploitation of immigrant workers by enforcing labor law, not by attacking the immigrants.

In her statement to the media, Secretary Solis made it crystal clear that her intention in signing the treaties is to protect all immigrant workers, with or without papers.

The program to be developed under the treaties will create mechanisms whereby embassies and consulates of the countries involved will have a direct liaison with two agencies of the Department of Labor: OSHA and the Wages and Hours Division.

Reactions from anti-immigrant groups and the right were wild. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which poses as a scientific think tank but is in reality the mouthpiece of a small but vocal network of anti-immigrant organizations, said enforcement of labor law is all right, but that when there is intervention on behalf of undocumented immigrant workers, they should also be deported. Of course, the danger of being deported if you complain about abuse on the job is precisely the problem. Other commentators from the far right accused Solis and the Obama administration of “pandering” to “ethnic” constituencies, failing to understand that American workers should have more rights than foreign-born ones, or even undermining U.S. sovereignty. They reacted the same way to the recent announcement by the Obama administration that from now on, people currently under deportation procedures will be reviewed on a case by case basis, and only those with criminal backgrounds will be prioritized for deportation.

The fact is that a lot more needs to be achieved if the Obama administration is to regain credibility on the immigrants’ rights issue. The government continues to promote the Secure Communities and 287-g programs whereby local police, some of whom are racist or at least poorly trained, are enlisted to help federal immigration enforcement, and the E-Verify program mentioned above, which is pushing undocumented workers (and sometimes others, by mistake) out of their jobs and into worse ones. There have been protests against Secure Communities all over the country where Homeland Security has tried to hold public hearings, and three state governments (Illinois, New York and Massachusetts) as well as some smaller jurisdictions have tried to opt out of it. So far, the government has responded that the program will go ahead with or without cooperation with the state governments.

Photo: Creative Commons 2.0


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.