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Rockford & Moline, Illinois

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Nick Avgerinos
Nick Avgerinos
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Breaking Down Borders: Speaking Up For Those without a Voice

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If a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it still make a sound? You bet it does. Similarly, just because an injured party cannot speak for himself does not mean that he does not have something to say. Entiendes?

For the millions of immigrant workers in this country, this is precisely the problem they face every day. Hay muchos problemas, from the language barrier to lack of knowledge regarding one’s rights. The AFL-CIO does an impressive job of delineating such rights in an accessible way. In fact, it goes so far as to provide the same information regarding workers’ rights in Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese, thereby lowering the barrier of access to information. This sort of access, however, assumes that immigrant workers have the knowledge, time, and ability to use it. Unfortunately, this is rarely true.

The wages of immigrant workers are often much below the minimum wage. Perhaps an idealistic few might wonder how this is possible. Well, the meager sums paid by their employers still exceed the amount they could earn in their native countries. For many immigrant workers, one hour of the California minimum wage is more money an entire day of wages in Mexico.Simply put, it’s better than nothing…and their employers know it. Oftentimes, then, their safety and well-being is sacrificed in favor of the almighty dollar. In a world where quality is often sacrificed for quantity, safety training is too often supplanted by a learn-as-you-go mentality.

More complicated problems arise when the immigrants being abused in the workplace are here illegally. Starving transcends the language barrier. So does the agony of losing one’s limb. Yet, beyond the pangs of such suffering, the injured usually remain silent. Why? Because they don’t have rights; at least that is what they’re made to believe. As attorney Pat Jennings reported in January, though, the South Carolina Supreme Court recently ruled that citizenship status should not affect a worker’s ability to recover for workers’ compensation claims.

Yet, for most immigrant workers, speaking up means getting pushed further down. It means possible lower wages, even longer hours, or being forced to leave the country.

Such fear is alive in the community of Postville, where the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the AgriProcessors meatpacking plant on May 12, putting nearly half of the plant’s workforce out of commission. What this may mean for us: higher kosher meat prices. What this means for them: putting their entire lives on pause.

As those AgriProcessors employees who escaped detainment huddle in the local Catholic Church, praying for the chance to return to their lives, praying for the chance to be underpaid and overworked, we have stop and wonder why. Some of us might remember the old Schoolhouse Rock theme song, espousing that “Knowledge is Power.” It’s clear that many immigrants today lack any knowledge regarding their rights, while being acutely aware of their own powerlessness. Providing information, like that advanced by the AFL-CIO, is a step toward increasing knowledge and thereby distributing the extreme imbalance of power often present in the workplace.