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Senate votes to repeal labor protection laws that safeguarded poultry workers

Senate votes to repeal labor protection laws that safeguarded poultry workers

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Photo credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

From The Guardian:

by Sam Thielman

The Trump administration and Senate Republicans rolled back labor protection laws on Monday in a pair of moves that labor advocates predict will chill complaints by vulnerable workers, especially in the low-wage food processing industry, which relies heavily on easily exploited undocumented laborers.

The Senate voted along party lines, 49-48, to repeal an Obama-era executive order mandating accurate labor violation record-keeping, meaning that companies with on-the-job accidents and fatalities no longer have to disclose that information in order to receive lucrative government contracts. Earlier the same day, Trump issued an executive order promising to “rigorously evaluate all grounds of inadmissibility or deportability” with respect to foreign nationals on US soil.

The House already voted to pass the bill revoking the record-keeping order; Trump has said he will sign it into law. Some 134 public interest groups, from the ACLU to the Sierra Club, signed a petition to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, asking the Senate to keep the disclosure law as is. McConnell, with his fellow Republicans, voted to rescind it.

Debbie Berkowitz, formerly a senior official with the Obama administration’s Office of Safety and Health Administration (Osha), called Congress’s decision to undo Obama’s order a major setback for workers. When the order is rescinded by Congress, it cannot be reissued by another president.

She said one of the industries most likely to experience the impact of the repeal is the poultry industry, an industry with high rate of worker injury and death, large government contracts, and a historical reliance on undocumented workers.

Berkowitz told the Guardian she believed the chicken-processing industry targets recent refugees and undocumented immigrants for employment because they are less likely to complain. Under Trump, she said, things will get even worse. “This administration is totally for corporations and lobbyists and not for the American worker,” she said.

“There are a lot of good industries out there,” Berkowitz said, but she does not believe poultry processing is one of them. “You shouldn’t be allowed to get away with hiring workers and then terrorizing them to get away with unsafe working conditions.” Berkowitz currently works for a non-profit called the National Employment Law Project. “This is an industry that purposely locates in areas, in rural out-of-the-way areas where they can hire workers that are newly resettled from other countries.”

The poultry industry will also probably benefit from continued exploitation of undocumented workers and recent refugees, noted by Oxfam, Human Rights Watch and many others, while undocumented workers themselves continue to live in fear of edicts like Trump’s executive order, she said. “Workers are already scared to talk to Osha; they definitely won’t talk to Osha now,” said Berkowitz, who worked as chief of staff and later senior policy analyst with Osha from 2009 to 2015.

There are reasons for that high level of mistrust: under George W Bush, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents impersonated Osha inspectors in order to gain access to facilities where undocumented immigrants were employed.

The specter of a 2008 raid on a Postville, Iowa, poultry processor looms large over any worker afraid of being separated from family and community over immigration status. Workers at the Postville AgriProcessors chicken processing facility asked Ice to forgo any planned enforcement actions while they unionized. Instead, Ice arrested 600 people and tried 300 of them in four days in an ad hoc courtroom set up at a local fairground, where they were sentenced five at a time.

While some have criticized Obama’s record on deportations, Berkowitz said under Bush it was even worse. “There’s a fear that things will get worse [again],” Berkowitz said. “There’s going to be cutbacks on enforcement by worker protection agencies that say, ‘You’ve got to comply with the law.’”

Read more from The Guardian.

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