Contact: Laura K. Abel, Brennan Center for Justice (212) 998–6737
U.S. Departments of Labor and Homeland Security Each Point to the Other as Being Responsible
New York – Using a procedure set up in the labor side agreement to NAFTA, a group of Mexican workers, and Mexican and U.S. organizations, have submitted a document to the Mexican government detailing the frequent exploitation of workers brought into the U.S. by their employers on temporary work visas, and the failure of the U.S. government to enforce even the most basic of the workers’ employment rights. The submission follows up on a complaint the workers filed in 2005. The workers complain of suffering brutal physical injury, stolen wages, and unsafe housing. They describe their inability to enforce their rights through the federal and state labor departments, and to obtain access to the civil legal aid they need to seek redress.
In response to the workers’ initial complaint, last October the Mexican government asked the United States government sixty-nine sets of detailed questions regarding the extent to which state and federal laws, courts and agencies protect the employment rights of the workers, all of whom were lawfully present in the U.S. on “H2-B” temporary visas for unskilled, non-agricultural workers. The questions include how many H2-B workers have complained of violations of their labor rights, how state and federal agencies investigate those complaints, how H2-B workers are able to access free legal aid, and how the government ensures that they are not subjected to forced labor.
The workers’ response explains that although the federal Departments of Labor and Homeland Security are charged with administering the H-2B visa program, neither accepts responsibility for ensuring that employers live up to the promises they make to the workers they recruit. Moreover, although the Department of Labor does pursue some worker complaints regarding wage and hour violations, it is slow to act. Alarmingly, this spring the Department of Labor proposed regulations to further weaken its ability to protect the rights of H-2B workers.
The workers bringing the complaints have substantial support in the U.S. and Mexico. Five U.S. organizations and six Mexican organizations joined their complaint. Representing the workers and the supporting organizations are Laura Abel, Deputy Director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; Michael Dale, Executive Director of the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project in Portland, Oregon; and Maria Andrade of the Andrade Law Office of Boise, Idaho.
The workers brought their complaint in Mexico, and the Mexican government has now responded, because the governing agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico allows aggrieved workers to complain to any signatory nation other than the one charged with violating the agreement. The agreement guarantees migrant workers who are in the U.S. legally the ability to enforce their labor rights, access to courts, and fair enforcement proceedings.