Friday, February 17, 2012

New Bedford update

Here's what I have submitted for the April (??) issue of Anthropology News. It probably won't look the same when it comes out in print.

March 6, 2012 marks the fifth anniversary of the 2007 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on the Michael Bianco garment factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a highly militarized operation involving over 500 federal, state and local law enforcement agents. As a result, 361 undocumented workers, primarily Maya K’iche’ women from Guatemala, were shipped to detention facilities, mostly out of state, where some languished for months. The raid sent shock waves through the Central American migrant community as family members scrambled to learn where their loved ones had been sent. Fearing they might be next, some migrants stayed home from work, kept their children home and avoided going out in public. Eventually, over 100 workers were deported.

The raid reverberated well beyond the local community, as it marked a new phase in the U.S. government’s increasingly harsh treatment of immigrants – large-scale workplace raids, long-term detention and mass-scale deportation. Deportations have skyrocketed during the Obama presidency, reaching a record high of over 400,000 in 2011. Some observers have suggested that since deporting all of the 12 to 15 million undocumented migrants in the U.S. is not feasible, one unstated goal of this stepped-up enforcement is to suppress wages and immigrant worker activism.

Long before the 2007 raid, labor and immigrant advocates recognized that immigrant workers in New Bedford suffered hazardous working conditions, wage theft, racial and sexual discrimination and outright harassment from employers and supervisors.  Accidents are common; at one recycling company alone, ten workers lost fingers. Ironically, the raid helped to catalyze a new wave of open and often quite militant activism by the immigrant community, focused primarily around workplace rights. 

In 2008, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and other immigrants founded the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (Workers Community Center), and they have waged successful campaigns at local and regional workplaces. Sometimes CCT has gone to bat on behalf of an individual employee, like D.S., a 16-year old Guatemalan who received no pay for the 8 weeks he worked at Tents-4-Rent, a tent-rental company. In other cases, groups of workers have approached the organization. While many abuses are common to all immigrant workers, women workers are additionally vulnerable to sexual harassment, and the Guatemalan Maya (the largest Central American group in the area) are frequently subjected to racist commentary from their supervisors (often non-indigenous Guatemalans who have transposed Guatemala’s racial ideologies into a new setting).  CCT’s tactics are fairly straightforward: with help from English-speaking collaborators like me, they write letters to the companies detailing the violations (informed by a working knowledge of relevant state and national statutes) and requesting remediation. They also seek face-to-face meetings with managers or owners. If this does not produce results, then they move into direct action, usually picketing in front of the owners’ home.

Since the government is pushing the E-verify program, which obliges employers to verify the migration status of their employees, many local companies use temporary employment agencies to create a legal smokescreen. Temporary agencies have been notoriously lax about enforcing minimum wage and other labor laws, and they have also blacklisted workers who report abuses.  CCT has joined other immigrant workers’ centers and unions in Massachusetts to push for passage of HB 1393, the Reform Employment Agency Law (REAL), and their efforts have started to bear fruit. On January 18, 2012 (the day I flew back from a year’s stay in Guatemala) CCT signed an agreement with one of the largest temporary agencies in Southeastern Massachusetts, guaranteeing that immigrant employees would receive minimum wage, overtime, vacation, and sick leave, and that health and safety requirements would be met.

At the same time, immigrants are making claims on their home country governments.  The Guatemalan Consul in Providence now regularly invites Maya from New Bedford to its activities, and while writing this column, I helped craft an invitation to Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry to send a representative to the events commemorating the fifth anniversary of the ICE raid.

However, workplace abuses continue, and during the last year CCT’s two main organizers were assaulted, one at gunpoint. We do not know if these attacks were a result of general anti-immigrant sentiment, or more directly connected with their advocacy.  But unlike many immigrant crime victims, both went to the police, and are pushing the local authorities to investigate. And, as transnational and media-savvy activists, they made sure that newspapers in both New Bedford and Guatemala reported the assaults.

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