Labor unions are organizing illegal aliens

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Waterfront rife with abuse

In 1983, when the seafood processing plants on the New Bedford (MA) waterfront broke the back of the Seafarer's Union, the starting salary for a line worker was around $7.50 an hour. Twenty-five years later, the starting salary for processing and packing workers at the New Bedford fish houses was about the same, $7.50 an hour.

On Jan. 1 of this year, the starting wage on the waterfront — as the result of the latest increase to the state's minimum wage rate — finally went to $8 an hour.

One of the big reasons there's been so little wage growth in New Bedford fish houses is that after the unions went out of existence, many fish houses, over time, replaced their mostly legal, and union-protected, Portuguese immigrants with low-paid Central American immigrants, many of whom are in the United States illegally.

These new immigrants, desperate for employment, were willing to work far cheaper (after the union was first broken for as little as $4.50 and $5 an hour), and with far fewer benefits than the generations before them. The current $8-an-hour entry wage is 12 to 16 times what the immigrants would make in Guatemala, where wages range from $4 to $6 per day, depending on the section of the country.

"Unions that once represented processing workers are non-existent today, and the processing labor force is hired and laid-off at will, on a temporary and seasonal basis," wrote local labor advocate Corinn Williams in a 2006 report commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras now comprise the bulk of seafood production workers in New Bedford, according to Ms. Williams' study, "Flexibility of Fresh Fish Processing Labor Supply."

A UMass-Amherst Labor Center study of ways to organize illegal immigrants in New Bedford fish houses said that by the late 1990s, New Bedford, and its seafood processing plants, had become a prime destination for Mayans fleeing economically and socially troubled Guatemala.

The New Bedford immigrants had one thing in common with other new immigrants working in other grueling American food processing businesses — meatpacking and chicken plants in the South and Midwest — they all labored in "the worst jobs in America," according to Tom Juravich, a UMass professor and director of its labor center.

"The jobs have never been great — foul-smelling, repetitive and dangerous — but a generation ago, many were decent union jobs," he wrote in the study "Avenues to Organizing Undocumented Workers: Guatemalan Mayans in Fish Processing in New Bedford, Mass."

"However, as global giants consolidated, slashing wages and letting working conditions deteriorate, few in the communities where the jobs were located would work in them — at least for long. Since the owners couldn't move the plants to the Third World, they brought the Third World here."

Since the demise of the seafood plant unions, many of the Portuguese immigrants who worked there in the 1960s and 1970s have moved up to better jobs as they have become more Americanized, Ms. Williams told The Standard-Times.

Also, over the past two decades, overfishing and the enactment of strict federal fishing limits on New Bedford's seafood catch (particularly for groundfish) has made seafood processing work more unpredictable.

As a result, temporary employment agencies now hire undocumented workers as employees-at-will, say dozens of Central American immigrants interviewed by the newspaper.

The temporary agencies, they say, supply few benefits beyond a small amount of vacation. Health insurance is so expensive that few workers can afford it on their minimum-wage jobs, which themselves are sporadic.

"They treat us like donkeys," said Adrian Ventura, a Guatemalan immigrant and activist, through a translator. Mr. Ventura is working with Central Americans who say they have been abused by everything from fish houses to apparel factories to tire recyclers.

"They depend on us being illegal to pay us less," he said.

William F. Solimine, president of EDA Select Temporaries of Lynnfield, said his agency (which has about a half-dozen New Bedford waterfront clients) offers the benefits it can afford for low-end workers (20 hours of vacation/sick time for every 1,000 hours worked and a health plan that costs $1,150 per quarter for a family and $450 for a single person).

"Most choose not to take it because it's an expensive plan," he acknowledged.

Mr. Solimine said he believes working conditions in seafood processing plants have improved since 2007 when the federal government beefed up the system for phoning in to validate Social Security numbers.

"The companies down there (on the waterfront) that are reputable are striving to do everything the right way when they do business with contract labor," he said.

Some of the waterfront employers of undocumented immigrants, however, have not just taken advantage of the workers, they've also taken advantage of the taxpayers and the upstanding employers and insurance companies that follow the law.


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