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Q&A: “Migrant Workers Bring Vibrancy to the Labour Movement”

Peter Costantini interviews PABLO ALVARADO, executive director, National Day Labourer Organising Network

SEATTLE, Washington, Jun 19 2009 (IPS) - Day labourers looking for casual work are familiar fixtures on corners outside home improvement and garden stores across the United States. Less visible are the workers centres that have grown up in many locales to serve and organise these mainly immigrant and undocumented workers.

Pablo Alvarado Credit:

Pablo Alvarado Credit:

Founded in 2001, the National Day Labourer Organising Network is the biggest federation of immigrant workers centres in the United States, with 38 member organisations in 16 states.

Pablo Alvarado, executive director of NDLON, has guided the organisation into a growing collaboration with the trade union movement.

Alvarado spoke with IPS by telephone from the NDLON office in Los Angeles, California. Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: How do you sum up the cooperation between the labour movement and workers centres? Pablo Alvarado: When you go to a day labour centre, what you see there is workers. When you go to a union hiring hall, what you see there is workers as well. And workers have similar needs around issues of wages and hours.

Our concern is for all organised workers. So I think the more people who come together to fight together, the closer we will be.

IPS: What successes have you had so far? PA: In some places the workers centres have actually become members of the central labour councils.

An example close to where you are is in Portland [Oregon]. When the workers centre was about to be opened there, there was resistance from some building-trades unions, and of course they were concerned about workers being sent to places where there were labour disputes and used as scabs.

Obviously, workers centres have organised workers there. And our belief as an advocacy organisation, as a national workers organisation, is that we have to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are fighting for better wages and working conditions.

So we came out with a memorandum of understanding between the workers centre and the unions, and we committed not to send workers to those places. On the other hand, whenever there was a labour dispute, our workers would actually go and join the picket lines.

IPS: The recent joint statement on immigration reform by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win said that they want to improve the existing programme of temporary visas but oppose expanding it. How do you see this whole issue of guest workers? PA: Well, what we currently have is not working. I can give you an example where guest workers were fighting against an employer. They protested. And this employer thought that since these people were guest workers he could call ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. So ICE came and arrested a bunch of workers and took them to prison. These are the type of guest-worker programs that currently exist. We’re talking about servitude.

Obviously we disagree with the way they’re being used right now. A lot of workers from Peru, Bolivia, and other countries were promised so many things when they were brought in as guest workers. They were promised at least 40 hours of work a week and housing.

But when they came in they didn’t have 40 hours and they found out that the housing they were supposed to have they were going to have to pay for. They had paid a lot of money to the recruiters that went to their home countries to bring them over. And they were stuck here, they couldn’t go back because they had invested all the savings of their lives to come here.

IPS: As the recession gets deeper, it puts more pressure within the union memberships on the issues of immigration. How can the day labourers movement deal with that and survive in this really terrible environment? PA: Obviously our organisations are not equipped to provide jobs to everyone. Workers centres are not meant to address the issue of unemployment and to be able to give everyone work.

But we know that there’s a rise in labour-related abuses, including wage theft. So we continue to protect people, providing the wage-theft service whenever a worker is cheated of his or her wages. It has intensified in this crisis, so we are investing more resources in that.

The day labour centres that help people find jobs, we’re about to start investing a little bit more about how to better promote the services that they provide and make the centres more attractive so that more employers can come in, like perhaps more homeowners.

Then the other thing that day labour centres do a lot, and lately have engaged in a more intense way, is finding social services in the community, from food banks to homeless shelters. These centres provide the only networks of support that migrant workers have in this country. The centres become more rooted in the nature of the community that they serve.

IPS: Where would you like to be in five years in building workers centres, in relations with the labour unions, and in developing your network? PA: Obviously we plan to work closely with unions. If there is an immigration reform, we want to make sure that workers at workers centres get union jobs at union wages, as many as we can get in. And help unions articulate perhaps comprehensive apprenticeship programs that are based on the cultural background and education levels of people, in their language.

The future of workers centres is linked to future of labour unions. And workers centres have become very prominent in the fight for worker rights in this country. They have become a primary vehicle to protect workers who are not part of organised labour. So I want to see more of that.

If there’s an immigration reform, does that mean that the issue of the undocumented will end? That’s difficult to say. And even if everybody gets documented, does that mean that the civil rights of people are going to be respected? The answer is no.

So we will continue playing our role as labour-rights and immigrant rights and civil-rights institutions, as organisations for the integration of migrant communities. I only see us becoming stronger within the next five years.

I think workers centres bring this vibrancy that the labour movement hasn’t had in a long time. And I think we can definitely renew the energy in those unions. I think workers centres and unions in our ways complement each other.

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