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Ojeda and Khalil: Immigrants deserve labor law protections

Ojeda and Khalil: Immigrants deserve labor law protections

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From the Houston Chronicle:

by Martha Ojeda and Hany Khalil 

One year ago, federal agents raided a Houston tortilla factory and detained 11 workers. There were many laws being violated behind those factory doors. But the federal agents seemed concerned with only one - violations of immigration law.

Yet, day after day, workers had been working in temperatures of up to 100 degrees - and higher - with little access to water. When the poorly maintained machines caught fire, the workers discovered the emergency exits were locked.

And as a complaint to the Department of Labor outlined, one worker lost three fingers on a machine. Only a year later, another worker lost two fingers on the same machine. The factory's owners forced the double amputee out of his job, without compensation for his injuries or even an apology.

The owners, it appears, were more concerned with workers stealing tortillas than with the potential loss of their lives and limbs.

The federal agents who stormed the factory on Aug. 4, 2015 had investigated the company for years. As part of that investigation, undercover agents worked inside the factory. They knew about the amputations. They knew about the sweltering conditions, the broken-down machines and other unsafe practices.

But that is not what brought federal agents to the factory that day.

Instead, the officers - from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency - came to investigate violations of federal immigration law. They arrested and handcuffed 11 workers and asked them to testify against the owners of the factory for hiring undocumented workers.

The workers agreed.

But what about the locked exits and the sweltering heat? What about the disfigured workers? What about the unsafe work conditions?

As cooperating witnesses to their employer's immigration law violations, some of these workers received temporary protection from deportation. The federal agents wanted to make sure they were present to help them build their case.

On paper, similar protections are available to undocumented immigrant workers who report labor rights violations. This makes sense. Without such protections, employers can exploit unauthorized immigrant workers with impunity, banking on the fact that the workers will be too scared of the consequences to go public with their complaints.

In practice, however, workers don't receive such protections. And so, for the most part, they remain silent. But that's not right.

All victims of labor violations should be granted protections and treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their immigration status. When their rights are violated, they deserve to know that federal agents will have their backs.

Some of the Espiga de Oro workers who were victims of the raid told the Department of Labor about the abusive conditions at the factory. Their courageous actions benefit other workers - in that factory and elsewhere. These workers should be granted temporary protection from deportation not just because of their willingness to testify to immigration law violations, but also for providing valuable testimony about the egregious labor violations at the factory where they worked.

Last week, as a result of the complaint made by these workers, the Department of Labor publicly announced that an investigation found 21 "serious" health and safety violations at the factory. The federal citation of the factory is a recognition that going to work at Espiga de Oro every day has been an act of faith. "It's clear this company needs to take its employees' safety far more seriously," Steve DeVine, OSHA's assistant area director in the Houston North office, said in a statement.

As the immigrants detained in the raid well know, workers had been placing their lives at risk from exposed wires, blocked emergency exits and hazardous machinery, from which workers did not have protection. The actions of the workers who brought the complaint benefit scores of other workers and should raise awareness among employers about the consequences of ignoring their obligations to guarantee the most basic worker protections.

The United States currently has a love-hate relationship with immigrant workers. On the one hand, everyone knows they are making this country's food, cleaning offices, caring for children, building houses and doing other low-wage, often dangerous work that needs to get done. On the other hand, politicians like Donald Trump are stoking fear, racism and resentment by claiming they are undermining the working conditions for everyone else.

A simple solution is to let immigrants have the tools and confidence to report abusive employers by giving whistleblower protections to those who come forward.

Read more from the Houston Chronicle.

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