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.