Tax day, Passover week: labor, migration & justice, now...and in 2049

From our Restore Fairness blog-

On this year’s Tax Day that has just passed, several organizations including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), MoveOn, Daily Kos and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) joined forces for ‘Tax Day: Make Them Pay.’ The groups organized peaceful protests around the country outside the offices of big corporations and millionaires that have evaded paying taxes for last year, mostly due to government-mandated tax breaks. According to the site, “In 2009, after helping crash the American economy, Bank of America paid $0 in taxes. GE had a tax bill of $0 in 2010. Republicans want to give a $50 billion tax bailout to big oil companies…” These protests came at the heels of news that corporations such as General Electric paid no federal taxes in 2010, something that has infuriated the millions of workers around the country who work hard and are expected to dutifully pay their taxes on time.

The tax break issue is the latest in a series of developments that have recently charged the country’s politics around the issues of immigration and labor rights, with them coming together in the case of migrant workers. Last month, the country witnessed a major standoff in the Wisconsin state government between Governor Scott Walker (and his Republican-led state assembly) and thousands of labor groups and workers in the state as the Governor pledged to enact a bill to severely curtail collective bargaining. After three weeks of fierce debates, Gov. Walker managed to push the bill through. The Ohio state assembly soon followed suit, with other states such as Tennessee and Iowa heading in a similar direction. This steady erosion of worker rights presents an increasing risk not just to the economy of this country but also to its social fabric. It also echoes a past where worker rights were often ignored, especially in the case of immigrant workers.

Last month, several labor groups and organizations marked the centennial anniversary of an incident that highlights the lack of protection of workers – the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 28, 1911, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. To mark the centenary of the tragedy, many labor rights groups amplified their push for pro-labor rights legislation to challenge the spate of anti-union labor bills that were passed recently. The 1911 tragedy brings to light the plight of immigrant workers and the exploitation that still continues today. At a rally commemorating the tragedy, one union member, Walfre Merida, described the similarities between the condition of migrant workers today and those that perished in the fire a hundred years ago. Merida stated-

I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all…Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop. When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.

As stories of worker rights violations continue to proliferate, we must take heed from our past mistakes in order to avoid a degradation of these conditions in the future. This week – just as Jews around the world gather at the Passover table to recount their liberation from migrant slave labor in Egypt – Breakthrough’s Facebook game, America 2049, immerses players into discussions around labor rights, especially with regards to the rights of immigrant workers. The game utilizes several events and artifacts from the past to highlight the continued struggles of migrant workers in the United States. In the game’s world in which everyone has an embedded chip to mark their identity, players are given the mission to investigate a counterfeiting ring that helps indentured workers – primarily immigrants, though also citizens who have succumbed to crushing credit debt – to escape their unjust contracts and inhumane living conditions, and begin new lives. The game references the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as a lesson from the past about the respect and rightful treatment of workers. It also suggests a future that is even bleaker because we as a country have failed to recognize the importance of immigrant workers and worker rights to the success of the country as a whole.

Watch a testimonial by a character in the game, Ziyad Youssef, a Syrian man who was lured into a job with promises of good pay and easy hours, but found himself in slavery-like conditions, unable to look after his sick daughter or provide basic amenities to his family:

The United States is currently grappling with an issue that will inevitably affect our national economy and social conditions in the years to come. The denial of legitimacy and basic rights to immigrant workers will only hamper the nation’s growth on the world stage. In a special report on global migration published in 2008, The Economist argued for the widespread acceptance of migrant workers by the richer countries that so desperately need them. Speaking about the United States, the report stated-

Around a third of the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. About 40% of science and engineering PhDs working in America are immigrants. Around a third of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. The low-skilled are needed too, especially in farming, services and care for children and the elderly. It is no coincidence that countries that welcome immigrants—such as Sweden, Ireland, America and Britain—have better economic records than those that shun them…Americans object to the presence of around 12m illegal migrant workers in a country with high rates of legal migration. But given the American economy’s reliance on them, it is not just futile but also foolish to build taller fences to keep them out.

Players in America 2049 will discover valuable artifacts from our country’s past that highlight an ongoing struggle for worker rights and have the agency to join the discussion and save the country’s future from the dystopic scenario the game depicts. One of the artifacts in the game is a poem titled ‘A Song for Many Movements,’ written in 1982 by Audre Lord, a black feminist lesbian poet. The poem articulates the connection between suffering and speaking out against injustices, which is what the workers rights protests around the country have been doing and which we must keep advocating until real change is made-

Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
or gallows
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
there will be no body left
to listen
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence.

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.

 

 

Colbert Congressional Testimony: The Truthiness of the Matter

Polls suggest large swaths of the country get their news from faux newsers Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Well, except the far righties who get their news from the faux newsers on Faux News, but that’s a whole other post.

It’s no wonder, Stewart is less biased than most real anchorbots and he’s a master at repeatedly demonstrating that technologically-challenged politicians still don’t get the concept that video never goes away.

Damn that infernal TV contraption!

Colbert – who isn’t a Republican, but plays one on TV – refers to the “truthiness” of his news, which is an unfair assessment. His news is usually far more truth(FULL) than the “real” stuff.

That might be the reason Colbert is scheduled to testify before the House Immigration Subcommittee on Friday.

He’ll appear in character to testify about his experiences after interviewing United Farm Workers President, Arturo Rodriguez, on his show. Rodriguez invited the President of the Cobert Nation to participate in the UFWs Take Our Jobs Initiative – a program that asks regular American softies to apply for jobs as farm workers. The UFW provides training to erstwhile farm workers so they can replace immigrants in the fields. It’s meant as a not-so-subtle bit of hyperbole to answer claims that farm workers are stealing American jobs.

“Somehow, undocumented workers are getting as much blame for our economic troubles as Wall Street, but missing from the immigration debate is an honest recognition that the food we all eat at home, in restaurants and work-place cafeterias, including those in the Capitol, comes to us from the labor of undocumented workers,” Rodriguez said. “According to the federal government, more than 50 percent of the workers laboring are undocumented.”

I once knew a man who traveled all over the world after his retirement as an air traffic controller to play amateur migrant farm worker. He picked oranges in California, avacados in Australia, and tomatoes in Wisconsin. He even had the business cards to prove it. But, that’s a whole other post too.

I’m sure Colbert’s testimony will be just as hilarious as say, Alberto Gonzales’ “I’m sorry, but I can’t recall that particular felony Senator” deny-a-thon during the Bush the Lesser™ administration. However, it’s still a sad state of affairs that Americans have so monumentally wigged out over issues like immigration that we’re better off depending on a comedian to tell us the truth – at least a different “truth” than Jan Brewer can muster.

What’s next the cartoon version of the Constitution?

Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks!

Program to stop border crossings diverts resources from more dangerous crimes

From the Restore Fairness blog.

Here’s more proof that current methods of immigration enforcement are unjust and inefficient. A Bush-era immigration enforcement effort along the U.S.-Mexico border called Operation Streamline is making us less safe in more ways than one – according to a new report released by The Berkeley Law Warren Institute.

Introduced in 2005 as a disincentive to border crossings, the “zero-tolerance” program requires the federal criminal prosecution and imprisonment of all unlawful border crossers. Instead, the program has led to unprecedented caseloads in eight of the eleven federal district courts along the border, leading to assembly-line justice and a serious lack of due process.

The report states,

Many Operation Streamline defendants complete the entire criminal proceeding – meeting with counsel, making an initial appearance, pleading guilty, and being sentenced after waiving a pre-sentence report – in a single day.

And while the numerous prosecutions are straining resources to the breaking point with overburdened judges, federal prosecutors and public defenders, it diverts scarce resources from fighting the roots of border violence: drug smuggling and human trafficking. As petty immigration prosecutions have increased in the border district courts, U.S. attorneys are forced to to cut back on prosecuting more serious crimes along the border.

In a New York Times article, Judge George Kazen of Laredo, Texas, has said,

The U.S. attorney isn’t bringing me those cases. They’re just catching foot soldiers coming across the border. . . . But they will tell you that they don’t have the resources to drive it and develop a conspiracy case.

As a result of Operation Streamline, between 2002 and 2008, Federal Magistrate judges operating along the border saw their immigration misdemeanor caseloads quadruple.

And despite their best efforts, it is extremely difficult for border jurisdictions to implement Operation Streamline without depriving migrants of due process and effective assistance of counsel. Chief Judge of the District of New Mexico, Martha Vázquez, has said,

The increase in our criminal caseload, especially in Las Cruces, has caused us to conduct hearings in a way that we’ve never had to conduct them before, and in a way that other jurisdictions don’t have to. . . . We have . . . up to 90 defendants in a courtroom.

Many defendants may have defenses that are not identified because of the speed and en masse nature of the proceedings.  These can include claims to immigration relief, such as eligibility for asylum or relief under the Convention Against Torture. Even U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents have been identified amongst defendants. This ultimately has consequences nationwide.

As Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Carolyn King has said,

we “can’t have a rule of law for the southwest border that is different from the rule of law that obtains elsewhere in the country.

The report recommends replacing Operation Streamline with a comprehensive and effective approach to border enforcement. This includes reverting to the longstanding practice of leaving unlawful border crossings to the civil immigration system, thereby stopping the draining the resources of the district courts, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Public Defender, and the U.S. Marshals Service.

Photos courtesy of www.law.berkeley.edu/ewi.htm.

Canadian Disgrace: Migrant Nannies & Caregivers.

(cross posted at kickin it with cg and motley moose)

Migrant nannies and caregivers in Canada are falling through the cracks of numerous federal and provincial government departments. In a recent series of stories the Toronto Star exposes unscrupulous and unregulated recruiters who exploit nannies and other domestic caregivers by luring them to Canada with false promises of nonexistent jobs, charging extortionary fees and confiscating their passports.  

A recent editorial asks:

You have to wonder: If there were fly-by-night recruiters scamming prospective construction workers or oil rig roughnecks from overseas, would the government be ignoring these rogue agencies while merely punishing the illegal labourers?

I'd bet no.

But what if those foreign workers were women, whether from the West Indies or the Philippines, who disappear into middle-to- upper class homes for minimum wages and maximum hours as nannies and domestic workers?

Today, according to documents obtained by Brazao and Cribb, Canada Border Services Agency officials actually acknowledge that there is "ongoing fraud and misrepresentation," but the federal government is doing nothing.

Nothing.

So vulnerable women, isolated and frightened, are forced to give up their passports and their pitiful wages to some 20 Toronto-area agencies and individuals suspected of abuse and fraud until those illegal fees are paid off.

Meanwhile, their families back home starve.

That's if the victims aren't deported, burdened by crushing debt.

And yet the practice continues, right under our noses.

Is this the government's solution to the daycare crisis in this country?

To date, most of the foreign caregivers in Canada are from the Philippines. While the Filipino consulates try to help abused workers, they are powerless to enforce Canadian labour laws and standards.

Tears flowed down her cheeks, but Maribel Beato didn't let go of the microphone. "My employer cared more about the dog than me," said Beato, a nanny who had a horrific experience with a North York family last year.

The family dog bit her three times but she wasn't allowed to seek medical help, she said.

When she decided to quit eight months later, the employer wanted her to sign a paper that said the family wasn't responsible for the dog attacks. "I was told I won't get the record of employment or T4 if I didn't."

She didn't get the papers.

Ontario's lack of regulation of nanny recruiters contrasts dramatically with Manitoba's tough stance against fraudulent agencies. Legislation set to take effect April 1 in Manitoba bans agencies from charging placement fees to foreign nannies, beefs up enforcement and requires every agency to be licensed by the province.

Further, the Manitoba legislation portends that nanny recruiters must be members in good standing of a Canadian law society, the Chambre des notaires du Québec or the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants. Names of all licensed recruiters and agencies will be posted on a provincial website so families can be sure they're dealing with a legitimate operator.

Provincial Labour Minister Peter Fonseca has repeatedly avoided this issue however. Confronted by opposition MPPs in the Legislature, he passed the buck onto the federal government. When reminded by reporters that other provinces have begun to ban recruitment fees for foreign workers, Fonseca grudgingly agreed to contact Manitoba's labour ministry to learn more about its planned April 1 crackdown.

A member of Fonesca's own Liberal caucus, Mike Colle, has upstaged him by introducing a private member's bill that, like Manitoba, bans fees paid by workers (which are also illegal in the Philippines).

"The exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers by unscrupulous recruiters cries out for government intervention," said Colle when introducing the bill this week. It's a cry that Fonseca and his labour ministry, set up 90 years ago to protect workers, have shut out for too long.

Meanwhile Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recently acknowledged the problem and is looking to "blacklist" unscrupulous nanny recruitment agencies that exploit foreign caregivers in an attempt to put them out of business.  Kenney added that the move is among a series of reforms he is considering to the federal Live-in Caregiver program.

It is an outrage that these injustices continue to take place and that both the federal and provincial governments have turned a blind eye to exploitation and abuse.

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