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Human Rights Abuse In Plain Sight: Migrant Workers in the U.S.

Chandra Bhatnagar,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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December 18, 2009

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

Today is International Migrants Day, marking the anniversary of the passage of a United Nations resolution adopting the landmark International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

As we mark this day as an occasion when we affirm the human rights that are entitled to all migrants, a working-class community with a large population of migrant workers is suffering at the hands of the government in Puerto Rico. Ordered to relocate after the land on which they have been living was declared a flood zone, the 200 families and 300 children of the Villas del Sol community in the town of Toa Baja – many of whom are Dominican migrants – are now facing forced evictions. Those eviction efforts turned violent this summer when police pepper-sprayed and beat residents – including a pregnant woman and her 6-year-old son – who peacefully protested the construction of barricades around their community. Water and electricity were shut off in August.

Recently, following a local and international outcry, the government partially restored water services through three taps, but only through the holiday season, which in Puerto Rico ends on January 18. Electricity continues to be denied, and the dire situation has compromised sanitation and fueled fears of disease outbreaks. At least one infant has contracted the H1N1 virus and others have been hospitalized, and there are further fears of an outbreak of Dengue fever.

Though it may seem shocking that something like this could happen in a U.S. territory, the migrant residents of Villas del Sol represent a part of the population that is extremely vulnerable to human rights violations and abuse. Migrants frequently face exploitation and discrimination by their employers and public officials, and can be denied basic services like health care and, as seen in Villas del Sol, housing.

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families guarantees migrant workers and their families fundamental human rights, including:

  • freedom from discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, sex, religion or any other status, in all aspects of work, including in hiring, conditions of work, and promotion, and in access to housing, health care and basic services;
  • equality before the law regardless of a migrant’s legal status;
  • freedom from arbitrary expulsion from their country of employment; and
  • protection from violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation by public officials or by private individuals, groups or institutions.

Though the United States has yet to ratify this treaty, these rights are also protected in treaties that the U.S. has ratified, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The failure of the U.S. to address human rights violations facing migrant workers has drawn sharp rebukes from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Migrant workers pay the price when the U.S. lags in international standards. For example, under the U.S. guestworker program, foreign guestworkers (or temporary workers) are left at the mercy of employers who can exploit, isolate and abuse them. Guestworkers often arrive to the U.S. deep in debt after paying exorbitant amounts of money to recruiters who promise them job opportunities. With inadequate governmental oversight of labor abuses in the guestworker program, it is only after they arrive in the United States that these workers discover that they have no way to escape an abusive situation because, under the terms of the guestworker program, they are unable to lawfully transfer their visas from one employer to another.

Another group of very vulnerable migrant workers are domestic and agricultural workers, who are excluded from federal legislation that provides basic protections like the right to a minimum wage, overtime pay, freedom of association, and health and safety guarantees while at work. These exemptions can be traced back to New Deal legislation passed in the 1930s, when the growers’ lobby and other moneyed interests pressured Southern senators to exempt the then largely African-American worker populations of farm workers and domestic workers from these basic workplace protections. Because of this racially biased “compromise,” workers in these professions today – who largely include migrants from Central/South America, South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean – continue to be unprotected.

A third group of migrant workers who face grave and systemic human rights violations are the 9 to12 million workers without authorization or documentation. Despite the fact that the most dangerous and poorly paid jobs in the United States are often filled by undocumented workers, the U.S. government has increasingly limited the protections available to this group of people, leaving them vulnerable to workplace discrimination and abuse. A particularly damaging precedent was set by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc vs. NLRB, which found that an undocumented worker who was unlawfully fired for engaging in union organizing activities was not entitled to the back-pay that another “documented” worker would receive. The case has had a devastating impact on undocumented workers as a whole, as basic employment and labor protections under state laws have either been eliminated or severely limited in some states. These policies are in violation of international law, which requires the U.S. to apply its workplace protections equally and without discrimination based on immigration status.

These human rights abuses are happening in plain sight and repercussions extend far beyond the workplace, as migrants in the U.S. who are unable to earn a decent living are often denied adequate housing, health care and other basic needs. Variations of the dire situation faced by the community of Villas del Sol play out on a smaller level every day as families across the U.S., trapped by unfair labor laws, try to make a living with few governmental safeguards and few options for help.

International Migrants Day offers us an opportunity to pause and reflect on what kind of society we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren. Will we remain a country which has groups of our population who toil in obscurity, unable to assert fundamental rights and freedoms? Or, do we have the courage and conviction to try and build the “beloved community” described by Dr. Martin Luther King, which recognizes the collective humanity of all human beings, irrespective of immigration status, race, gender, religion or national origin? To insure that our future is brighter than our past, we must affirm the fundamental dignity of all people.

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