Here’s the situation: A group of Chinese restaurant workers in New York City are suing their former employer — Le Colonial, a Midtown restaurant that tries to recreate “the beauty, romance and spirit of French Colonial Southeast Asia” — for discrimination and retaliation. According to the complaint, the workers faced harsh working conditions that included being forced to stand for 10-hour shifts in excessive heat and being forced to take meal breaks in bathroom stalls. After repeatedly trying to address these conditions, the workers were fired. (Side note: The name/theme of the restaurant earns itself a big “FUCK YOU” to owner Jean Denoyer for glorifying French colonial Vietnam. Who does that?)
As Kenneth Kimerling, legal director of the Asian American Legal and Defense Fund, notes in the article, workers face such mistreatment partly because “the employer thinks that they won’t fight back because of language and maybe even [immigration] status issues.”
The Bigger Picture (Articulating Fucked-up-ness in a Global Context)
Cases like this one, and the well-publicized wage violations at two Manhattan-based Saigon Grill restaurants in 2008, highlight the issues that immigrant workers face as a result of language barriers and immigration status. The justice system offers little recourse: extant labor laws have proven ineffective in defending workers’ rights in court, as has the current state of the crippled National Labor Relations Board.
In fact, immigrant workers are refugees seeking asylum from corporate-driven global capitalist policies that displace workers and farmers from around the world. Neoliberal economic reforms and policies (e.g., one-sided “free” trade agreements) exacerbate the economic oppression that workers abroad face, forcing them to migrate to the United States in search of the “American Dream.”
The Philippines offers a great look at how one-sided neoliberal globalization operates: the tariff-reducing economic liberalization policies that the WTO implemented in the Philippines with the prospects of “free trade” and a “free market” have led to flooding imports that in turn have drowned industries and livelihoods that are already struggling to breathe in an underdeveloped Philippine economy.
People in the Philippines have been forced to emigrate and seek employment abroad in order to support their families back home. In the process, though, they face increasing exploitation and abuses from employers who take advantage of the fact that Pilipino migrants compose a cheap, flexible, and commodified source of labor. Free trade? No. Skyrocketing poverty and unemployment trends that are being neglected in favor of the economic (re)colonization of Philippines lie far from freedom.
Unfortunately, people trying to escape from poverty migrate to the belly of the beast to find themselves overworked and underpaid in hazardous working conditions. Those who speak out against this exploitation face further intimidation and retaliation from their employers.
Immigrant workers without a clear path to citizenship are relegated to shit jobs that pay next to nothing in unregulated industries that are well-known for labor violations. The fight for immigrant rights goes hand in hand with the fight for worker rights. As the history of Asian peoples in the United States illustrates, exclusionary immigration laws have attempted to manipulate sources of cheap labor in favor of corporate interests. The legacy of exclusion manifests in the deportations and de-humanization of migrants as “illegals” that plague a broken immigration system.
Next Steps (Unfucking Workers’ Rights…and Ourselves)
Progressive recommendations that include passing the Employee Free Choice Act (which would grant workers more freedom to organize and bargain collectively), passing a federal DREAM Act (increasing access to higher education for undocumented youth), and stepping up Occupational Safety and Health Act standards would (ideally) go a long way to protect workers. However, the legal system has never failed to disappoint. Cases dealing with workplace abuses and gross violations of labor law tend to be drawn out over long periods of time—time that workers don’t have while they labor to sustain themselves and their families).
Furthermore, raf raises some good points about the de-radicalization that accompanies campaign drain:
Cases like the DREAM Act also become de-radicalized as the fight prolongs. The leftist critique of the DREAM Act gets sharper and stronger as politicians hack away at the educational piece of the legislation and leave the military piece alone (or perhaps they even strengthened the military section? I haven’t followed the legal fight to a T.) In other words, forget education for the brown people (aka “criminals” since they’re “illegal”) but let them fight our wars against other brown people we’re trying to conquer.
While legislation that looks to improve workplace conditions and reform immigration law is significant, the day-to-day organizing and education of workers should never be forgotten.
With the shortcomings of the legal system in mind, we must keep in mind that the key is building workers’ strength and unity. Raising awareness of labor laws and workers’ rights provides a foundation for workers to make sure they are being treated properly in the workplace. Incorporating political education and outreach with English language training as well as workshops on wage and workplace issues can lead to worker-led grassroots organizations that provide a strong voice for immigrant workers. Politicization and organization of workers through legal reactions to workplace abuses may provide the very necessary first steps toward worker empowerment and a sustainable class consciousness.
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