Immigrant workersRead this article in The Nation by Terri Gerstein. Gerstein was formerly  Labor Bureau Chief in the New York State Attorney General’s Office, and a Deputy Commissioner in the New York State Department of Labor. Her article vividly describes why the Trump administration’s war on immigrants hurts all workers and helps bad bosses.  And without mentioning health and safety or OSHA, it makes the case for preserving the Susan Harwood Training grant, slated for elimination by the Trump administration.

In  order to protect workers from abuse, government inspectors need to be able to talk to workers and assemble first-hand evidence. Gerstein describes how difficult it is for government officials who are trying to help workers prevent abuse to earn the trust of workers.

 It was still never easy. Our investigators would enter a restaurant kitchen and workers would fly through the back door. During an inspection of an upstate construction site with a Polish workforce, one of our top officials, a church deacon in his off-hours, sprinted down a hill after fleeing workers, calling out in fluent Polish, “We’re not immigration!  We’re here to help!”

To stop illegality, law-enforcement agencies need to know of the existence of a possible infraction and they need evidence. This is true in civil and criminal cases, and it is true regardless of whether the case involves violence, fraud, discrimination, theft, or labor abuses. Enforcement agencies need people to talk with them: to report violations of the law and to provide testimony.

That is why we built relationships with community groups on the ground, and why we translated our materials into many different languages. And that is why we never asked about workers’ immigration status: If we had, many of the most exploited workers would not have said a word.

Gaining the trust of workers is difficult even in the best of times. When you have a President and government that is hostile to immigrant workers, the task becomes almost impossible. Workers are driven underground, afraid to file complaints, even if they’re documented: “These actions are driving immigrants into the shadows, and not only undocumented people. Many neighborhoods, workplaces, and families contain a mix of documented and undocumented immigrants, so even someone with papers may be nervous about calling authorities, out of concern for the possible implications for neighbors, colleagues, or loved ones.”

During the Obama administration, OSHA’s Susan Harwood Training Grant program increased its focus on supporting those non-profits that reached out to the most vulnerable workers — not just immigrants, but day laborers, temporary employees and others who had little access to information about hazards they faced or their rights under the law.  Trump’s “skinny budget” proposes to eliminate the Harwood Program.

And that’s not just bad for immigrant workers — it’s bad for all workers — and good employers:

Unscrupulous employers will underpay, endanger, and exploit immigrant workers who are afraid to report violations.

Even if you don’t care about these workers as fellow human beings, this situation is also bad for other workers. If undocumented workers don’t feel comfortable speaking up, it creates an incentive for disreputable employers to hire and underpay them, skewing the job market and creating downward pressure on wages generally.

This is damaging to law-abiding employers, who have to compete with the bottom-feeders who save a buck by breaking the law.

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