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.

 

 

Weekly Diaspora: 100 Years After Triangle Fire, Immigrant Workers Still Fighting for Labor Rights

by Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

Last week marked the centennial of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. The tragedy prompted widespread labor reforms in the United States, but its commemoration underscores the plight of immigrant workers similarly exploited today.

As Richard Greenwald notes at Working in These Times, the disaster marked “the moment that a strong collective working class demanded its citizenship rights,” while today, “we are living in a time where organized labor is weak, fractured and leaderless.” He concludes that a rebirth of labor must come, as it did in 1911, from today’s new immigrant communities, which continue to bear the brunt of exploitative labor practices.

Immigrant workers rally for labor rights

Immigrant workers and union organizers articulated the same sentiment when they commemorated the fire last week. According to Catalina Jaramillo at Feet in Two Worlds, labor groups rallied Friday to call for safer working conditions and unionization—especially for the thousands of immigrants who face abuse and exploitation because of their immigration status. One union member articulated the similarities between today’s migrant workers and those who perished in the Triangle Fire:

“I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all,” said Walfre Merida, a member of Local 79, from the stage.

Merida, 25, said before joining the union he worked at a construction company where he was not paid overtime, had no benefits and was paid in cash.

“Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop,” he told El Diario/La Prensa. ”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.”

Kari Lydersen at Working In These Times adds that, while workplaces in general have gotten safer, immigrant workers tend to be employed in the most dangerous professions and are disproportionately affected by workplace health and safety problems. In particular, foreign-born Latinos tend to suffer injury and illness at a much higher rate than U.S.-born Latinos. Lydersen writes:

Work-related injury and illness can be especially devastating for undocumented workers since they are often fired because of their injury and they often don’t collect workers compensation or other benefits due them. […] A 2009 Government Accountability Office report says non-fatal workplace injuries could be under-reported by 80 percent.

Crackdown on immigrant workers bad for the economy

Other labor rights advocates are drawing attention to the federal government’s ongoing crackdown on immigrant workers. Worksite audits which require employers to check the immigration status of their workers have resulted in thousands of layoffs in recent months. This sweeping trend hurts families as well as local economies, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center.

The report specifically looks at the economic impact of immigrant workers in Arizona, but its findings present much wider implications. Marcos Restrepo at The Colorado Independent sums up the key points:

  • The analysis estimates that immigrants on the whole paid $6 billion in taxes in 2008, while undocumented immigrants paid approximately $2.8 billion.
  • Increase tax revenues by $1.68 billion.

The report adds that the effects of deportation in Arizona would:

  • Decrease total employment by 17.2 percent.
  • Eliminate 581,000 jobs for immigrant and native-born workers alike.
  • Shrink the state economy by $48.8 billion.
  • Reduce state tax revenues by 10.1 percent.

Meanwhile, the effects of legalization in Arizona would:

  • Add 261,000 jobs for immigrant and native-born workers alike.
  • Increase labor income by $5.6 billion.

Restrepo adds that, in part because of such mounting evidence, immigrants rights advocates are exhorting authorities to recognize immigrants as workers, first and foremost.

Immigrant farm owners contend with exploitation

Of course, even when immigrants are owners, rather than employees, they still disproportionately contend with exploitative industry practices. At The American Prospect, Monica Potts reports on the unique experiences of Hmong immigrants operating chicken farms in the Ozarks. Specifically, Potts examines how behemoth agri-businesses like Tyson exploit the inexperience or limited English abilities of immigrants to sell chicken farms and secure contracts that often put the farmers deep into debt:

Many Hmong were signing contracts they couldn’t read and getting into deals they didn’t fully understand. At least 12 Hmong declared bankruptcy in 2006. […] The concerns are similar for other immigrant farmers, especially Hispanics, who moved into the area to work at chicken-processing plants but were also recruited to buy operations. Hispanic farmers sometimes pooled their money and bought farms without a contract, only to realize later they wouldn’t be able to sell their chickens on the open market. … Many just walked away rather than trying to save their farms.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

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