The treatment of migrant workers has been highlighted during the World Cup in Qatar, where many temporary foreign workers reportedly died while building the event’s infrastructure.
Advocates for immigrant workers in the U.S. note that abuses aren’t just happening overseas.
“The fact of the matter is that migrant workers in the U.S. are struggling with many of the same issues those workers were facing in Qatar,” said Julie Taylor, executive director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, headquartered in North Carolina, speaking with VOA.
Those issues include “being forced to work through extreme heat waves, wage theft, poor housing, lack of access to healthcare, a shortage of personal protection equipment,” Taylor said. “The tragedy in Qatar shouldn’t be tolerated, and it’s also an important opportunity to remind Americans of the tragedies happening in our own backyard.”
In some states and local jurisdictions, government agencies and advocacy organizations can point to progress for migrant workers. Last year in New York, for example, farm workers – a large proportion of whom are foreign-born, temporary laborers – won collective bargaining rights that will allow them to better advocate for higher wages and better working conditions.
And last month in New Orleans, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division renewed an agreement with the Consulate of Mexico to provide Spanish-speaking workers in Louisiana and Mississippi with information on their rights in the United States, as well as access to training, such as worker safety training.
“By partnering with the Mexican Consulate, we improve our ability to ensure both employers and workers understand their obligations and their rights,” Troy Mouton, New Orleans, Louisiana district director of the Wage and Hour Division told VOA.
The hope is the agreement will decrease wage violations against vulnerable workers toiling at the margins of society by helping those workers understand their employers’ obligation under the law to pay them.
Despite such steps, advocates insist much more needs to be done.
According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, America has approximately 12 million migrant workers at any given time, some authorized and others not. America’s current labor shortage, with millions of jobs unfilled, would be worse without the participation of migrant and temporary workers, say labor groups.
“Migrant workers are contributing in nearly every sector in the economy,” explained Shannon Lederer, director of immigration policy for the AFL-CIO, a union federation, “and they’re also being exploited in all of them – across all industries and across all wage levels. This is a full-blown crisis.”
Mouton says temporary foreign laborers have played an indispensable role in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast region in recent years. This, he said, underscored the need to renew an agreement with the Mexican Consulate to help to protect the rights of those workers.
“In recent history, the single most significant event that resulted in an increased migrant worker presence in Louisiana was Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” he said, recalling the infamous storm that flooded 80% of New Orleans and killed more than 1,800 people. “Most of our migrant workers came from Mexico and elsewhere in Central America, and their efforts after the storm in debris removal, demolition, and eventually reconstruction have had a huge impact on our city.”
Similar efforts took place following later hurricanes such as Laura, Delta, and last year’s Hurricane Ida, but Mouton said migrant worker contributions extend far beyond disaster recovery.
“The majority of migrant workers in Louisiana contribute to the construction, agriculture, and seafood processing industries, all of which are important to the economy of Louisiana,” he said, adding that it is an ongoing struggle “to protect the welfare of these workers” and achieve “compliance with federal labor standards.”
Amy Liebman, chief program officer for the Migrant Clinicians Network, headquartered in Texas, believes the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored just how essential migrant workers are to America and its economy. This, she said, should make the conditions these workers endure even more appalling to the nation.
“In a 75-mile [120-kilometer] radius from where I live, we have 10 chicken processing plants, and there are many migrant laborers doing that difficult work,” she told VOA. “During the peak part of COVID-19, it was those workers – toiling all day in tight spaces – who were getting sick and dying from the virus, and they were getting their families sick.”
Liebman added, “But there’s a fear, and it’s a fear founded in truth, that if you complain to your boss, you’re going to not just get fired, but deported, as well.”
Immigrant advocates such as Liebman and Lederer say understanding why workers come to the United States in the first place can illuminate how desperate their situations are. It’s often “push factors” such as war, violence, political instability and natural disasters – or “pull factors” such as a demand for cheap labor in the United States – that draw people from their home country.
“When you have people who are desperate to leave home, or to come here so they can send money back home to family, you have a situation in which these workers can be exploited, and that’s exactly what is happening,” Lederer of the AFL-CIO said.
“You have recruiters in the United States who are finding workers in other countries and demanding payment from them for the right to work in the U.S.,” Lederer continued. “So now those laborers are in debt when they arrive, making them more desperate for their job. And their visa is tied to one employer, so if they complain about subpar overcrowded housing, or if they say something about not getting paid on time, their employer can fire them and they’ll be sent back to their home country.”
21st century challenges and a need for comprehensive solutions
Liebman said a warming climate is adding to migrant workers’ woes, as they often toil outdoors in increasingly hot, dangerous conditions. This can add to health problems and compound the struggles many face.
“Getting good healthcare as an immigrant is already challenging, but now add in the migratory nature of their work,” Liebman explained. “Every time you move somewhere new you have to take the time to relearn everything. Who will take care of you and your family? Where is the community health center? How will you get there? How will you pay? In areas with large migrant worker populations, community health centers are often pushed beyond their capacity, so what then?”
While immigrant advocates hail incremental progress in some jurisdictions, they say federal action is needed to meaningfully improve conditions for migrant workers.
“This is an emergency, and we need to get serious about finding real solutions,” Lederer said, adding that comprehensive reform of America’s immigration system would be a good start. “If we’re going to create a welcoming country for the labor our economy needs, the focus should be on longer term solutions that allow immigrants to come to this country permanently and with the ability to change jobs once they’re here.”