Standing Up for Workers' Rights

06/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Exploitation anywhere is a threat to organized labor everywhere." Those were the words of Rev. Jesse Jackson at the introduction of the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act. The POWER Act, introduced by Senator Menendez (D-NJ), and co-sponsored by Sens. Gillibrand (D-NY), and Murray (D-WA) on April 14, 2010, provides courageous workers with the tools to exercise their labor rights without fear of retaliation by abusive employers who use immigration agents to do their dirty work.

You may be asking yourself, "isn't retaliation already illegal?" It is. But shrewd employers have learned to game the system: they recruit, hire, and exploit immigrant workers only to turn around and call on immigration agents to deport workers once they begin organizing or otherwise exercising their labor rights. The cooperative relationship between unscrupulous employers and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has a devastating impact on the immigrant workers who are detained - sometimes simply for claiming their unpaid wages, complaining about sexual harassment, or raising their voices about dangerous working conditions - and deported. Their collaboration interferes with the civil and labor rights of immigrant workers. It undercuts honest employers who suffer an unfair economic disadvantage at the hands of unscrupulous employers and undermines the broader labor movement's efforts to improve conditions for all workers.

Take Josue's case: He was only a 17-year-old construction worker when he landed in jail for standing up to his employer's exploitation. Josue and other immigrant workers were picked up in New Orleans by contractors and transported to Beaumont, Texas to clean up the region after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav hit in September 2008. Josue gutted houses and removed toxins without the health and safety equipment mandated by law. Josue suffered racial harassment, was denied breaks, and was required to work excessive hours. When Josue and his co-workers exercised their labor rights, the employer fired them, evicted them from the labor camps, and called the police and ICE. Josue spent more than two months in jail and now faces deportation simply for standing up for his basic rights. The employer apparently continues to do business as usual with the blessing of ICE.

Today, Josue is a member of the Congress of Day Laborers in New Orleans and continues to speak out against these injustices. Josue's case is not an isolated one; there are countless workers who tell similar horror stories. Daniel, a founding member of the Alliance for Guestworkers with Dignity who came on a guest worker visa, faced threats of deportation for not accepting unconscionable working conditions after Hurricane Katrina. Silvia, a bilingual secretary in Oakland, CA, was detained by immigration and jailed for filing a claim against her former employer for unpaid wages. Macan was detained by immigration just one day after signing a settlement agreement with his employer for unpaid wages and put in jail for more than three months. The employer never countersigned the agreement. Aby is one of several hundred Indian workers brought on guest worker visas by Signal International who have been subjected to ICE interference and cooperation with the company.

I have the honor of knowing each of these workers, several of whom are former clients of mine in lawsuits brought against their employers. Were it not for their tenacity and perseverance, their stories would likely have ended in deportation, like those of so many others.

The seeds of the POWER Act were first sown by valiant workers like Josue, Daniel, Silvia, Macan, and Aby, who asserted their rights despite the risks. The bill provides protections to immigrant workers who suffer labor violations and gives all workers the opportunity to report violations of civil and labor law to the government without fear of having immigration authorities knock on their doors. As a result, native born workers and immigrant workers alike will finally be able to effectively exercise their labor and civil rights.

Other Congressional members should follow the leadership of Sen. Menendez to protect all workers. In the interim, the Obama administration can take steps to ensure that ICE is in the business of protecting workers, not helping employers exploit them.