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Workers' Rights

U.S. immigration laws support sweatshop practices. - AFL-CIO

Immigrants often come the United States for its job opportunities, and many come with college degrees and professional experience. Some immigrants are unable to work in their fields of expertise due to current U.S. immigration policy, which requires that every newly hired worker show proof of citizenship. Undocumented immigrants are frequently forced to take low-paying, often dangerous work - regardless of their experience or skills - because they do not have the paperwork to allow them to do the jobs they do best.

U.S. corporations depend on the cheap labor they get from undocumented immigrants, according to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). But when the immigrants strive to improve their working conditions, employers use the threat of deportation to silence them. Recently, the AFL-CIO reversed its previous position toward U.S. immigration policies established in 1986 (see Timeline). The organization now condemns the civil and criminal penalties imposed on employers who hire undocumented workers. Studies show that these sanctions cause discrimination against U.S. citizens and other workers who may appear to be foreign-born. Some employers use these provisions to intimidate undocumented workers who try to organize for fair wages and safe working conditions. Read more about the AFL-CIO's current position in Immigration Law is Unfair.

Regarding sweatshop labor, President Clinton's Fair Labor Association (FLA), formed in 1998 to address unfair labor practices in the United States and abroad, asks employers to police themselves with regard to workers rights - the equivalent of asking the fox to guard the henhouse. The FLA still allows workers to be paid below-poverty wages and to work excessive overtime, and it does not adequately uphold the rights of workers to organize unions.

Case Studies of Immigrant Workers and Union Struggles

Between 1988 and 1993 in Los Angeles, the average hourly wage in women's apparel fell from $6.37 to $5.62.

In 1992, California drywallers stopped the construction of all interior walls in new homes from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara in protest of their working conditions. After defying police and the Border Patrol and blockading freeways with car caravans, they forced building contractors to sign a union contract, the first won by grassroots organizing in the construction industry since the 1930s.

In 1993 at one of New York City's largest and most successful Chinese restaurants, immigrant workers campaigned for seven months to change the sweatshop conditions they endured.

In 1994 in El Monte, California, 72 Thai immigrants were found inside a barbed-wire compound working 22 hours per day under threats of physical violence.

In 1996 in San Leandro, California, immigration agents went through a video reproduction company's I-9 forms to find the names of undocumented workers. A major raid followed in January, in which 99 people were deported, just before a union election.

During a 1998 union organizing drive by the Teamsters Union and the United Farm Workers in Washington state's apple industry, management told workers that union support would bring on INS raids.

In 1999, a Los Angeles furniture factory began calling workers into the office to verify their immigration status after they voted to join the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Subsequently, many workers failed to support the union due to fear of deportation.

In a small community on Long Island, New York, a series of violent attacks against day laborers has been reported, including a drive-by shooting in late 1999.

The National Mobilization Against Sweatshops reports that 80 to 90 percent of garment sweatshops in New York's Chinatown are unionized, and yet conditions are deteriorating: union workers make $1 to $3 per hour and work 10 to 16 hours per day.

Even with today's perceived economic boom, the federally mandated minimum wage has been $5.15 per hour since September 1, 1997.


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