Thanks for Bill Zachry for bringing to my attention this San Francisco Chronicle article about training Mexican workers, in Mexico, about their employee rights. “Started in September, the Center for Migrant Rights is a small nonprofit group based in the central state of Zacatecas, which provides free legal aid to guest workers seeking compensation for injuries or missed pay. The workshops — this one was conducted in the central city of Celaya in Guanajuato state — emerged after some 20 workers who had returned from the United States decided to educate would-be migrants about the ins and outs of toiling in the United States.”
the Global Workers Justice Fund is trying to do something about ensuring legal representation of Hispanic workers in the U.S. when they have returned to their country of origin.
Mexico courses teach migrants American ways
(06-12) 04:00 PDT Celaya, Mexico — On a recent Sunday morning, a dozen burly men sat in a cinder-block garage, fixing their attention on the acronyms “OSHA,” “EPA” and “DOL” written on large pieces of paper.
“Why is it that we Mexicans only know about the migra (U.S. immigration officials) and the police?” asked Jesus Rojas of the Center for Migrant Rights. “Why not the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety? Why not the Department of Labor, which looks out for wage violations?”
Next, Rojas passed around a pay stub from his job in Delaware when he worked as a landscaper on a guest-worker visa. “Don’t trash these, file them away,” he said. “Being organized can help if you or your fellow workers are underpaid or not paid at all.”
Call it Immigration 101.
Started in September, the Center for Migrant Rights is a small nonprofit group based in the central state of Zacatecas, which provides free legal aid to guest workers seeking compensation for injuries or missed pay. The workshops — this one was conducted in the central city of Celaya in Guanajuato state — emerged after some 20 workers who had returned from the United States decided to educate would-be migrants about the ins and outs of toiling in the United States.
Since then, the center’s immigration attorneys have organized crash courses on U.S. labor law, the role of U.S. government agencies and previous civil rights struggles. The lawyers then accompanied the budding activists to workshops in their home states of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Queretero and Veracruz, among others.
As the U.S. Congress remains indecisive on immigration reform, one thing is sure in the poor and dusty outskirts of Celaya — migrant workers, whether illegal or not, will remain vulnerable to exploitation by some U.S. employers.
“I wish somebody had told me about all of this before I left Mexico,” said the 52-year-old Rojas.
In 2000, Rojas fell off a truck while on the job in Delaware. Unclear about medical coverage, his boss “blew me off,” he said. “I don’t speak English, but it was clear that any absence would put your job in jeopardy.”
After a bout of dizzy spells and headaches, Rojas received a doctor’s note excusing him from work for three days, but his employer ignored the physician’s advice. Unable to recuperate, but afraid complaining would risk his chance of working again in the United States, Rojas returned to Mexico.
“Not everyone is out to exploit you in the U.S.,” he said. “But there’s a strong sense that some bosses count on your ignorance.”
Know-your-rights workshops for migrant workers in the United States are nothing new. What is rare is preventive education efforts occurring in Mexico, experts say.
“When I held these workshops with immigrant workers in Florida, they’d just listen quietly and keep their heads down,” said Rachel Micah-Jones, a U.S. lawyer who founded the Center for Migrant Rights in 2005. “But the interaction is far different in Mexico. People are more comfortable here and not afraid to speak up and ask questions. And who better to offer such orientation than former workers themselves?”
Micah-Jones says reaching migrant workers in the United States — particularly the undocumented — is difficult because of their fear of authorities. Stories such as the 2005 arrest of 48 immigrants in North Carolina who thought they were attending an OSHA safety training class but walked into an immigration sting have swept through the migrant community.
“It’s amazing how many immigrant workers know about that story,” said Micah-Jones. “People are worried that an invitation to a rights meeting is a trick.”
To date, center volunteers have fanned out to ranches, community centers, taco stands — wherever potential northbound migrants gather.
“This kind of binational advocacy is filling a critical education gap,” said Jose Padilla, director of San Francisco-based California Rural Legal Assistance, which offers legal aid to agricultural workers. “Before they even come to the U.S., immigrant workers will already have key knowledge when it comes to their rights. Of course it’s up to them to exercise those rights, which is not always so easy.”
Oscar Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities in Chicago, says it is important that outreach workers neither dissuade nor encourage U.S.-bound migration.
“They are simply talking about the fact that immigrants get kicked around in the U.S. and don’t typically defend themselves,” he said.
In Celaya, Rojas prepped for the Sunday morning workshop by arranging lawn chairs in a semicircle in his garage. He spread out information brochures on U.S. labor rights, health care, housing for guest workers, the proper handling of pesticides and general workplace safety.
Rojas started the meeting by ticking off a series of dos and don’ts.
“If you’re working with pesticides, check out the ingredients and ask for gloves and soap,” he warned. “Don’t wait to get sick after 15 days.” Another tip: Don’t complain to your boss alone. “Always bring another worker or two along as a witness.”
After a few minutes, Alfredo Estrada, a husky 45-year-old handyman considering his first trip north, asked about local newspapers ads “that offer us jobs in the United States.” Rojas then reached for a handout warning would-be workers of scam artists on both sides of the border who ask for thousands of dollars in exchange for visas and work permits.
“See if they’re registered with any government authorities,” Rojas said. “And don’t ever give money up front.”
Micah-Jones also expressed concern that con men would take advantage of the current congressional debate.
“Headlines in Mexico will say the U.S. is legalizing 12 million immigrants, although it’s not law yet,” she said. “But scam artists will offer to get Mexicans on some sort of list if they hand over cash.”
As the meeting continued, a few neighbors who were walking by peered in and sat down. Like most residents in Mexico, many residents here know somebody working in the United States, have gone themselves or depend on remittances sent home. The city is ringed with crops of corn, carrots, alfalfa, onion and beans.
Along the train tracks near Rojas’ house, groups of Central American migrants wait to hop trains heading toward the U.S. border.
“I’m not interested whether people hire a smuggler or head to the U.S. with a proper work visa,” said Rojas. “Whatever the case, they should go informed.”