By Kevin Milliken, La Prensa Correspondent
August 27, 2014: A Mexican consulate official and a field representative from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) joined forces to tell Spanish-speaking, undocumented adults that they still have rights in the workplace regardless of their immigration status.
José Francisco Zamora Cardona of the Detroit Mexican Consulate Dept. of Protection told more than a dozen adults in attendance that their workplace complaints would stay confidential—so there is no need to worry about deportation or other retaliation on the job. Adelante, Inc. hosted the forum, after learning from client families of harassment from some local employers.
“A lot of our clients that we serve may not know they have rights, so it’s important for us to as a resource center to provide information in regard to their rights,” said Guisselle Mendoza, Adelante executive director. “Documented or undocumented, you have rights, period.”
“They have rights, regardless of immigration status. There are federal laws which protect every person. In the workplace, it doesn’t matter if they have papers or not. It protects them regardless of sex, religion, color of skin—as long as they are working they have rights,” said Cardona. “That’s one of the main messages. Any worker—with papers or not—can go and ask for protection. That’s very important to consider. They will work for you because you are working.”
The consulate arranged for the OSHA field rep to attend the forum. Both agencies had available plenty of Spanish-language brochures about worker’s rights, immigration rights and other issues common to undocumented immigrants and their families. Managing attorney Eugenio Mollo and other representatives from Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) also attended the forum to answer questions.
“We have a lot of employers who abuse the system or don’t comply,” said Ms. Mendoza. “They think by hiring the undocumented that they can abuse the workers. So we want to let our clients and the community know how to navigate the system—who to report it to and just to let them know they shouldn’t be allowing that to happen.”
Adelante staff has learned about potential abuses through one-on-one conversations with clients and during site visits. The agency’s executive director stated clients may feel more comfortable discussing those issues with Adelante staff as opposed to others because of the relationships being built through such outreach efforts.
She said similar workplace abuses are being reported at sister agencies in Lorain and Cleveland.
“The hours are more, the pay is less. The environment that they’re in is worse than the ones that are getting paid normal wages. It’s not right,” said Ms. Mendoza. “We’re thankful to the consulate for bringing OSHA here. It’s just opening the door for more resources to come for our community. We want to make sure we listen to our community: what their needs are, what they want to learn about.”
“We don’t want the employers to take advantage of the workers because of their ignorance of their rights,” said Zamora Cardona. “We want them to know they can complain if those rights are being violated or they (employers) are not following the rules.”
The Mexican consulate representative stated that fear of deportation forces many undocumented workers to live with a bad situation and not say anything. They don’t know how to call for assistance.
“Some employers take advantage of that and threaten the employee to deport him if they don’t comply with what he says, even if that is a violation of the law,” said Zamora Cardona. “They pay under the table and don’t keep records—and in the end, they are paid far less than the minimum wage or not paid the overtime. Other times the employer didn’t train the worker for safety and those incidents are preventable.”
Denise Keller, assistant director of the Toledo area OSHA office, gave a brief presentation in English, which was translated by Zamora Cardona. She called worker safety the main charge of every private employer.
“We want you to go home the same way you came to work,” she said. “We don’t ask questions about any kind of nationality or status. If you’re a worker and you’re working, we want you to be safe.”
Ms. Keller outlined various ways workers can file an OSHA complaint. The agency even has a Spanish-language form on its website, www.osha.gov. But she admitted there is no one in the Toledo OSHA office who speaks Spanish, even though the agency can bring in a translation service. She also pointed out that any workplace training is required to be done in an employee’s native language.
“If you see OSHA at a work site, you have the right to speak to an OSHA investigator and that is confidential and private,” pointed out Ms. Keller, who also stated workers are provided ‘whistleblower’ protection to prevent employer retaliation. “Don’t have any hesitation to talk with them when you see them.”
The consulate provided pizza, drinks, and snacks for those in attendance. Young children watched videos and played games in an adjoining room during the presentation.