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Slaves, Sharecroppers, Now Immigrants

There are many reasons economic immigrants come to this nation—driven out of their home countries by bad trade deals that fail to consider the impact on workers or because they are fleeing unfettered corporate greed that seeks out impoverished nations to pay the lowest possible wages. Last week in this spot, I took a look at why border crossings start in the boardroom.

Once in the United States, immigrants are ripe for employer exploitation—and many U.S. employers don’t hesitate to do so.

In the past several years, nine farm workers died working the tobacco fields of North Carolina. Thousands more suffer work-related sicknesses from heat and chemicals from the tobacco, according to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). Last fall, hundreds of tobacco workers rallied at the headquarters of tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds to demand safer working conditions and fair treatment.

This week, a six-part series in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer describes the horrifying conditions of poultry workers, most of whom are immigrants. Reporters spent 22 months investigating the House of Raeford chicken and turkey processing plant and found the workers must endure long hours, painful injuries and are denied medical care.

Day after day, poultry workers are cut by knives, burned by chemicals or hurt by repetitive work, according to dozens of injury logs compiled by plants across the South.

Because many workers are illegal immigrants and can’t afford private care, their health rests largely with company medical workers.

Those in-house attendants are supposed to help workers heal. Instead, some have prevented workers from receiving medical care that would cost the company money, an Observer investigation has found. And in some instances, the treatments they provide can do more harm than good.

A 2005 AFL-CIO report found that the share of fatal occupational injuries for foreign-born workers increased by 43 percent between 1996 and 2000, even though employment for that group increased by 22 percent. Less than one-third of the costs of occupational illnesses and injuries are paid for by employer-funded workers’ compensation—with taxpayers picking up nearly 20 percent of the tab through Medicaid and Medicare. Injured workers and their families pay the largest share, according to Immigrant Workers at Risk: The Urgent Need for Improved Workplace Safety and Health Policies and Programs.

Documented immigrants also are exploited. Each year, 160,000 guest workers are permitted to enter the United States, supposedly to fill in gaps in our labor force. More than 25,000 of them work in the fields of North Carolina, harvesting tobacco, sweet potatoes, cucumbers and Christmas trees, according to FLOC.

Last summer, FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez told the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee that until we can protect the basic rights of guest workers already in the United States, Congress should not consider expanding that program.

Velasquez said expanding the current program would increase the corruption that plagues it and cited the longstanding problem of brokers extorting large amounts of money from workers to obtain visas. To ensure guest workers receive fair treatment, Velasquez told the committee, it is important that all workers’ rights , including farm workers’ rights, are protected, including the freedom to join a union.

Rather than improve the situation for guest workers, the Bush administration last week proposed to make it even worse. He wants to take away rights from workers here under the H-2A agricultural guest worker program. H-2A and H-2B visa programs bring agricultural and other seasonal workers into this country to pick crops, build houses and process seafood, among other jobs.

The AFL-CIO and the civil rights movement opposes Bush’s move. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says the proposal:

will hurt both immigrant and U.S.-born workers alike. The Bush administration has shown once again that it will go to any extreme to cater to the interest of corporations at the painful expense of workers, and that it is not serious about real fixes to our nation’s broken immigration system.

It would strip the H-2A agricultural guest worker program of necessary wage protections, undermine other essential worker protections, weaken efforts to recruit workers from this country and further erode government oversight, Sweeney says.

A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States, says it’s not unusual for guest workers to pay more than $2,500 in fees to obtain a seasonal guest worker position, about a year’s worth of income in a country like Guatemala. Thai workers have been known to pay as much as $10,000 for the chance to harvest crops in the orchards of the Pacific Northwest. Interest rates on loans brokers charge to get them into the country are sometimes as high as 20 percent a month. Homes and vehicles are required as collateral.

The solution, says Sweeney, is comprehensive immigration reform

that provides relief to the growing number of undocumented workers in our country by offering them a path to citizenship. We do not need more policies that turn our nation back in the wrong direction.

Reflecting on the findings of the Charlotte Observer series, editor Rick Thames succinctly sums up the nation’s relationship with immigrant workers:

… the neglect of these workers exposes an ugly dimension to a new subclass in our society. A disturbing subclass of compliant workers with few, if any, rights.

Same as slaves and sharecroppers, same as the cotton mill workers derisively termed “lintheads,” this subclass is now a scorned bunch.

And yet they help power our economy. We live in houses they built. We drive on highways they paved. We eat the chicken and turkey they prepared.

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