Developing the ACLU-NJ's Immigrant Workers' Rights Project (IWRP), the state's first comprehensive civil legal services and community education program focused on low-wage immigrant workers' rights, has been incredibly exciting and intensely overwhelming. I had only a slim idea of what to expect when I came to the ACLU-NJ this past September-my initial hat was less of a lawyer and more of a traveling salesman, taking the show on the road and meeting with workers, social service providers and immigrant rights advocates around the state. New Jersey's “booming” economy is infused with widespread violations of the most basic wage and hour laws, health and safety protections. Immigrant workers have come to expect abuses, knowing there will be weeks where you work and just don't get paid in the end-and rampant retaliatory tactics by your employers if you speak out: illegal wage deductions, illusory promises of employment, physical abuse or isolation, and ultimately, deportation.
Around the country (and the world), however, immigrant workers in all industries are fighting back by organizing and forging allies in labor, law and civil rights communities. Here in New Jersey, IWRP is focusing on three primary channels for social change: direct representation of workers, support for worker organizing, and policy-based advocacy. Our partnership with the American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights Program, a regional leader in advocacy, has brought a wealth of support, community connections and knowledge to the project that would have taken years to develop.
From Knowing Your Rights to Fighting for Them
One of the main goals of IWRP is to develop a broad community education program, ranging from clinics for workers to advice-and-referral programs for service providers. The opportunity to engage in discussions with the New Jersey public interest community on issues affecting immigrant workers has been rewarding. Advocates within the immigrant community are often approached with employment issues, and agencies have developed their own local expertise on handling these issues-from relying on local police to filing administrative law claims. Whether the audience has been job developers or ESL teachers, staff trainings at social service providers have yielded a growing number of referrals for cases involving workplace violations. I have also begun to partner with agencies to provide client clinics and trainings.
I've also given several presentations to workers from all backgrounds, from a Filipino workers' rights clinic to an industrial safety training center. These discussions move beyond rights and into the challenges of enforcement, expansion and worker organizing. Most importantly, the connections that are being made are in the hopes of establishing long-term relationships where we can eventually bring workers from all backgrounds together, either to form their own resource center or for specific campaigns.
Clients as Community Leaders and Workers as Advocates
The American Friends Service Committee and other organizations have provided individual and group case referrals involving discrimination, negotiations with employers, administrative hearings and wage collection issues. One of the largest cases has brought a group of immigrant workers seeking justice against a retail employer. These cases, while assisting individuals on their claims, are also sources of leadership development and larger advocacy to bring immigrant communities to the public without fear of retaliation.
Workers who have approached IWRP for assistance have included restaurant workers seeking to file criminal charges of unlawful confinement and abuse by their employers, H-1B visa technology workers who are lured to the United States through employment agencies that fail to make placements, and immigrant women warehouse workers who are blatantly discriminated against in treatment and wages at a major distribution center. Their stories are as varied as they are compelling, powerful testaments to the exploitation that hides within every strip mall and industrial park.
Legislative and Institutional Reforms for Greater Enforcement and Justice
Building on the work of the American Friends Service Committee and other organizations in the state whose members or clients have work-related issues, IWRP is developing a legislative reform agenda for New Jersey. One of the nation's most densely populated immigrant states, New Jersey lags in enforcement and penalties for workplace violations. Increasing the public discourse- ducating the public about the immigrant contribution to this state's economy-is a crucial step to developing a stricter scheme of preventing and punishing employers who abuse immigrant workers. IWRP is joining a New York-based campaign for a standard contract for domestic workers, as well as developing points for reform in wage enforcement, collection and penalties.
-By Jennifer Ching, ACLU-NJ's Skadden Fellow