If you’ve purchased shrimp, crawfish or crab in the last 15 years or so, odds are that it was shelled along the Gulf Coast by guestworkers living in conditions that will sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s read The Grapes of Wrath. Last week, some of those workers traveled to Boston in search of new allies to bolster their request of major retailers like Walmart, Whole Foods and Target to pressure their seafood suppliers on fair employment practices.
“We live in trailers on the property the employer owns, and the trailers are in very bad conditions,” says Olivia Fernanda Guzman Garfias, who worked for Bayou Land Seafood until this year. “It is sometimes 12 women to a trailer and the [H-2B] visa we have has our employer’s name written on it. That means we can’t go out and find any other employment if we aren’t being treated well. It feels like we are slaves. The employer constantly threatens he will call immigration and have us deported, we’re always under threat, sometimes there is even sexual abuse that happens to women and they still stay because of these threats.”
Guzman had been returning (from her village in Mexico) to temporary employment in the Louisiana seafood processing industry for 17 years, most recently for Bayou Land Seafood. Five years ago, she got involved with the National Guestworker Alliance, a workers’ center based in New Orleans. Last year she traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with lawmakers and other workers in the Walmart supply chain. (Most of her factory’s output is sold to the mega-store.) Then this year, when she tried to come back, her employer would not re-hire her. Guzman claims she has been blacklisted.
The Guestworker Alliance got Guzman stateside again with a tourist visa, and she returned to the factory to demand reinstatement and an agreement to desist from blacklisting organizing workers. When the employer refused, she submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, which theoretically protects any workers in the U.S. who “engage[s] in…concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.”
But the National Labor Relations Act is notoriously weak, which is why Guzman and the Guestworker Alliance are pushing for a labor accord with major realtors, principally Walmart, Target and Whole Foods, which sit at the top of the supply chain. The accord is meant to pressure them to keep their suppliers on the right side of the labor law while establishing a presumptive re-hiring clause and dispute resolution process.
This isn’t just a Gulf Coast issue. Last week in Boston, Guzman and the Guestworker Alliance hoped to build affiliate groups in southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, another major seafood production hub. New Bedford in particular is a big source of fresh fish and scallops sent to the same retailers: Walmart, Target and Whole Foods. The purpose of the trip was to build a joint committee of seafood processing workers from the two regions and plan a multi-region campaign against their targets. Although the three companies have not been responsive yet, the Guestworker Alliance plans to continue expanding their networks of allies and increasing pressure on the companies.
“We’re in a position where workers can’t wait for the government to change policy, although there are things that they could do now which would change the lives of thousands of immigrant workers,” says Jacob Horwitz, lead organizer with the Guestworker Alliance. “City governments could encourage or require that these retailers support the accord, but that’s not a strategy we’ve been supporting.”
Yet national laws governing Guzman’s case are unlikely to be altered substantially in the foreseeable future, so if public policy solutions are to be pursued, the fight has to be at the state or city level.
“More and more workers are juggling three jobs, or subbing from job to job,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, in a Q&A with Truthout. “Sometimes this is in one industry, but sometimes it’s across multiple industries. I have members who are restaurant workers on Monday and landscapers on Tuesday. They’re all in New Orleans, though. How does New Orleans guarantee a sense of security for these workers?”
Not a lot. But a few other American cities have established an array of public policies that are meant to set labor standards for low-income workers who have little individual bargaining power or union representation. The most common are mandatory paid sick days, which have been established in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York City, Seattle, among other cities, and among service sector workers in the state of Connecticut. Miami-Dade County established a wage theft ordinance in 2010 that allows workers to bring their complaints to the Department of Small Business Development. That agency tries to settle the dispute and, if it can’t be resolved quickly, sends it to an administrative hearing where burden of proof is on the employer (who is responsible for the paperwork). Other variations on anti-wage theft laws exist in Seattle, D.C., Madison, and San Francisco. The recent trend of setting city-level minimum wages has just reached new heights in the $15-an-hour wage passed in Seattle.
Notice how the same cities come up again and again (and how New Orleans isn’t among them). Given the geographically concentrated nature of the “progressive cities,” the Guestworker Alliance’s quest for an accord with industry, which isn’t necessarily reliant on public sector intermediaries, is certainly understandable. After the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh last year, many companies were pressured into signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh: If problems are found, companies are required to fix them and to pay workers for the hours lost to repair. Sean John, Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger all signed as did a multitude of European companies. Walmart demurred and put forward its own, self-administrated guarantees.
But the Fire and Building Safety Accord was only implemented after a disaster that claimed 1,130 lives. It remains to be seen if the Guestworker Alliance can force an agreement in the absence of a similar context.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.