New York Law School

#Labor Dispatches: Who is the Modern Day Mother Jones of Bangladesh?

DSC_0111 By Chaumtoli Huq, Editor and Curator of Law@theMargins

Solidarity is what we want. We do not want to find fault with each other but to solidify our forces and say to each other: We must be together; our masters are joined together and we must do the same thing.”  Mother Jones

Veteran actor and activist Kaiulani Lee brings her play Cant Scare Me: The Story of Mother Jones to Dhaka. Mother Jones was a well-known Irish American labor organizer who fought against child labor and to improve workplace conditions for American miners. That Lee brings her play on Mother Jones to Dhaka, after the Tazreen fire, and Rana Plaza tragedy, and in the context of on-going conversations on workplace safety, is both timely and instructive. Her life can provide some inspiration for those in Bangladesh who dedicate their lives to building a strong labor movement.


Lee as Mother Jones in her play: Can’t Scare Me: The Story of Mother Jones.

Mother Jones was a courageous and fearless organizer, who lent her voice to advocate for the rights of working families and their struggle. She was also an astute and strategic organizer. Suffering her own personal tragedies with the loss of her husband and four children to the yellow fever epidemic, she dedicated her entire life to fighting for workers’ rights. She also was motivated by her faith as a Catholic, and her ideas can find deep roots in the Catholic social justice tradition. Mother Jones knew that faith and justice were powerful tools to mobilize workers.  She organized in the late nineteenth century during the time of the rise of the first corporate executives like JP Morgan, Carnegie and the Rockefeller and was publicly critical of the corporate elite. Hailed the captains of industry, she called them Robber Barons.

Watching the play, Can’t Scare Me: The Story of Mother Jones in Dhaka and researching the labor movement in the garment industry led me to ask the actor – what would Mother Jones do if she were alive today? Lee, responded that Mother Jones would be here in Dhaka working with the workers, organizing them and trying to help in any way she could.  I would add that given her understanding of how corporate elites oppress workers for profit, she would be rabble rousing against multinational companies and brands.  In her time, she travelled from state to state to fight for workers’ rights, especially to end child labor. She would, as she often said, would “raise hell.”

Listening to the struggles in which Mother Jones was involved, some lost, some won – unionization, child labor, wages, and workplace safety – you would think we were speaking of the same issues in Bangladesh.

Adding to my question, Lee asked folks during her visit: who is Bangladesh’s Mother Jones?  She said that while some names were tossed about, no one name really stood out.

The response she received to her poignant question made me think about a question I have posed to labor leaders in the garment industry in Bangladesh on the strengths and weaknesses of the labor movement. The responses to what are its strengths varied, but responses on weaknesses were consistent in terms of a lack of unity. Lack of unity among social change activists is a common critique and should be understood in context of active efforts by institutionally dominant groups to divide them.   Nonetheless, it is a critique worth keeping in mind.   Mother Jones’s quote above is a constant reminder to be solidified because the interests that work against labor are united.

If movement leaders work in a collaborative and collective fashion, I don’t know that we need to search for a single Mother Jones in Bangladesh.   There may be many faces to this movement.  You can meet some here on my Facebook page.  Mother Jones as a icon for workers rights may be embodied in a strong cohesive labor movement. Perhaps, we should not be seeking the sole savior for the labor movement, but as Mother Jones advised, solidify forces and join together. Aptly, the common chant of Bangladeshi workers, Workers of the World Unite, seems appropriate.


Workers from a Rampura Factory and members of Bangladesh Industrial and Garment Workers Federation. They recently successfully organized a factory level union.



Labor and Immigration, Law and Social Movements | Comment

Perspectives: Palestinian Solidarity: Transitioning Resistance to Empowerment


By Shukry Cattan

Shukry has spent ten years working in the Los Angeles nonprofit sector, providing direct services to refugees and building a strong Arab American community. He has spent time in the Middle East assisting Palestinian refugee youth and is involved in interfaith dialogues between Muslims and Jews.

After 50 days of war in the Gaza Strip, the violence temporarily has been halted, but the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis continues. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed and 65 soldiers and four civilians have died on the Israeli side. The level of destruction to infrastructure in the Gaza Strip is unimaginable, leaving over 100,000 Palestinians internally displaced whose homes were destroyed and will take several years to rebuild.

What was it all for? As a Palestinian American, living in Los Angeles, I often ask myself this question and search for answers through twitter updates and Facebook posts. The personal accounts of individuals on social media give me a closer connection to the conflict rather than relying on the biased interpretations of mainstream media. Unfortunately, social media with 140 character sound bites has turned into a battleground to win hearts and minds over the conflict providing limited opportunities for constructive dialogue. The most disheartening aspect of social media has been the lack of focus to address this conflict as attention moves to other tragedies in the world.

Palestinian resistance is often romanticized by many progressive groups as one of the greatest examples of oppressed people overcoming a powerful foe. This view of always being in opposition can prevent the people of Palestine from beginning to live normal lives and who are desperately looking for a way to end their resistance. The Palestinians need to end the Israeli occupation of its territories to restore civil order in their society and develop economic security. We need to think beyond resistance and rebuild the confidence of the people. The period of time between wars are critical for advancing non-violent movements against the occupation, but it is during these times that people tend to lose interest or give up hope. So, if activists continue to push for only justice during periods of war and violence, the messaging for a peaceful solution in the region will be lost. Now is a critical time for allies and supporters to engage with Palestinians during their recovery and to foster a permanent reconstruction for the people living in Gaza.

Although still debated and highly overlooked, I think the most logical step for Palestine and Israel is to co-exist as two sustainable states. How else could Palestinians have a single state that includes the Gaza Strip and West Bank? These two territories are inseparable and should not be viewed as different states or people. It is also important to recognize the diversity and cultural complexity of the Palestinians in their ideologies, faith and culture. An education of Palestinian political resistance is important for all Americans to understand, but that must be coupled with a deeper knowledge of the people are without removing their humanity.

Solidarity for Palestine must be rooted in empowerment and not only in its resistance. The suffering of Palestinians is tied to the system of occupation and apartheid that governs the West Bank and the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel and Egypt. This suffering must end, but a plan for a strong Palestinian state must be considered in this equation. What will that look like? What method of governing will the Palestinians pursue? This, of course, is an internal dialogue for Palestinians, but there is a lot that can be gained with the support from allies to nurture this conversation. The constant state of resistance will only strengthen the presence of groups like Hamas and Fatah who are both corrupt. These political parties use the resistance narrative as a tool to maintain their ruling powers over the “Palestinian cause”. Israel’s policy to defend itself continues to dehumanize and abuse the Palestinians, leaving them no choice but to resist. Dismantling or replacing these policies will provide Palestinians with more spaces for internal debates regarding their future state and society.

In 2005, Palestinian civil society issued a call for a campaign to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) Israel until it complied with international law and Palestinian rights. This global movement against Israeli apartheid has galvanized many people to end the suffering of Palestinians using non-violent means. The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) is a coalition of Palestinian organizations, trade unions, networks and NGOs that have been successful with putting pressure on the Israeli government. Jewish groups have also joined this campaign and more could support it if the messaging included how ending a system of apartheid in the Palestinian territories will empower the people to develop stronger social and political institutions.

I believe the BDS movement is an important non-violent movement aimed at ending the occupation. The messaging should be focused more on the system of occupation rather than a call to act against Israel. We must consider the Israelis in any action taken since the ultimate goal is co-existence between these two people. Applying pressure on Israeli policies and holding their military accountable is important to preserve Israeli democracy and to disarm the war hawks that defend the need to answer conflicts with violence. The current governing parties of Palestinian territories must also be held accountable, but that only can be achieved when a sense of Palestinian empowerment is developed in the consciousness of the people. All forms of non-violent actions must be used and BDS has been an excellent vehicle towards fostering this type of movement while constantly reevaluating its strategy.

US activists have the tools, methods and history of non-violence to promote these actions and instill a sense of empowerment in the Palestinian people. The movement must build the lives of individuals and provide them with opportunities that create stronger family households, restore educational institutions for children and provide a space for Palestinians to freely discuss and criticize both Israeli and Palestinian political systems.

Palestinians need to find their voice and identity as a people outside of resistance and political circumstances. We are not numbers. We are not dead children. We are a people who have been denied the right to exist as a nation, but more than that, to live as human beings. American progressives should recognize that our story as an independent and free nation has not truly started; we are still fighting for the first page to be written.

Resistance against occupation and discrimination is not who Palestinians are, it is what we do to become something greater.


Human Rights and Democracy, Inquire, Involve, Law and Social Movements | Comment

#Labor Dispatches: Trade Unions Benefit All in the Garment Industry in Bangladesh


BIGWF Convention

At the recent, Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) annual convention, the theme reverberating among the speakers and among the worker audience was the importance of unionization. One worker-organizer remarked: “There are three things we must do: educate, organize and demonstrate.” However, what was equally clear from their speeches was that unionizing workers in Bangladesh is not an easy task.  Almost every trade union organizer that I interviewed had their own story of being harassed, beaten by police or factory hooligans frightening them or the workers they were organizing from forming unions, including the story of Hasina Akter.   The high profile murder of labor organizer Aminul Islam in 2012 allegedly by the National Security Intelligence (NSI) of Bangladesh reveals the severe constraints under which organizers seek to improve workplace conditions.

Labor leader Nazma Akter, founder of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, in an earlier interview spoke to me about sexual harassment from owners, or their managers, and sadly, at times from fellow male organizers. Since much of organizing work requires meeting with workers after work, or in the streets in front of their factory, owners try to disparage the reputation of female organizers by calling them “bad women” or “prostitutes.”

The challenges to unionization explain the paltry number of unions in an industry that boasts 4 million workers and over 3500 operative factories. In just last two years alone, 200 unions registered.   But, in contrast, only 2 unions were registered in 2011 and 2012. They formed in part due to changes in labor law, international community’s focus on Rana Plaza, and the suspension of trade benefits by the United States. While BGMEA industry representatives told me that garment owners are not opposed to unions, however, this fails to explain their strong opposition when workers do attempt to organize. This opposition was recently shown in the unionization efforts by workers in Designer Jeans.

In 2010, the current government created a separate Industrial police in most police precincts to regulate, squash unions, and to prevent union leaders from organizing. The collusion of the police, state with industry interests to prevent unionization makes these organizing efforts a monumental task, and therefore any bit of success a huge achievement. Recent examples of Tuba Group workers being attacked by police with tear gas and rubber bullets reveals the role that police and the state play in preventing unionization, and the violent manner in which labor demands are responded to. Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, reminded workers at the convention that they are fighting two powers: government and owner, so workers need to organize harder.

While the global attention has been on garment workers, there are similar patterns of discouraging unions in other sectors, notably the rising technology sector. Grameen phone union organizer remarked, “Whatever industry we are in, we are all same.” Accenture Employees Union president commended garment worker organizing, and said at the convention, that they are learning from the organizing that is happening in the garment industry.” Ibrahim Hossain remarked: “Many think we are not workers because we work in the IT industry, and they try to divide us. We have only one title: worker.”   In his speech, you can hear the same theme of the immense challenges of unionization. He says, “Unionization is not easy. Most workers who organize often find themselves out of work.” They registered their union just recently in July 2014.

From a labor–management perspective, such a virulent response to organizing is short sighted and simply creates industrial unrest that disrupts owner’s own economic interests.   In many ways, employers’ benefit more from unions in that they have one entity with which they need to bargain with workers. Unions were formed to equalize the bargaining power between employer and workers, but in practice, serve to maintain industrial peace and minimize industrial disruptions. Ultimately, workers give up the right to strike and seek redress for their grievances though a collective bargaining process which helps employers to maintain day-to-day functions of their business. While workers surely benefit in this process, employers have also much to gain from unions. In absence of a mechanism to redress basic grievances, workers have no choice but to demand their rights in the street. When workers take to the street, and if they do this for routine grievances, it only creates disruptions for the employer.

For Bangladesh, unions may help prevent another Rana Plaza, which the industry cannot afford to happen to crudely protect its economic interests if not concern for the welfare of fellow Bangladeshi citizens. Unions will be able to raise safety issues and bring those concerns to the attention of the factory owner before it becomes serious.

For a government that is so reliant on funds from this industry, which totaled $21 billion in 2012-2013, it is equally surprising how the government fails to see how addressing labor management relations is better for their own political and economic interests.  Instead, both owners and government respond reflexively against unions in some enlarged sense that they are giving up powers to workers, when they gain so much more in the process. Of course, unionization will not solve many issues that workers experience at the workplace, but it could minimize much of the disputes that seem factory level problems.


In an industry that is primarily women, unionization provides a vehicle by which women can seek empowerment, said Amirul Hoque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation. Nomita Nath, president of Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF), echoes this point that unions provides women a platform to assert their labor rights but it also helps them asserts their rights as citizens in society.

With all these benefits to women’s empowerment, workers and even employers, it is astounding the Government of Bangladesh has not made a proactive effort to remove any and all obstacles to unionization. This is particularly surprising given its coveted economic relationship with United States hangs in balance for its failure to demonstrate any genuine progress on labor rights for workers, including their right to form trade union. Its time for a sophisticated and humane approach to labor-management relations especially when so much is at stake from worker’s lives to country’s economic interests.

Ms. Chaumtoli Huq is the Editor and Curator of Law@theMargins ( a blog on law and social justice, and she is currently in Bangladesh on a nine month fellowship sponsored by the American Institute for Bangladesh Studies examining labor conditions in the garment industry. Follow her on twitter @lawatmargins


Uncategorized | Comment

Perspectives: Domestic Workers Movement: “Transformational Social Change” One Worker at a Time

rocio _1

By Rocío Alejandra Avila, a Senior Fellow at the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic of Golden Gate University School of Law. She is a Chicana/Latina community lawyer from San Francisco and a longtime immigrant rights activist and a domestic worker advocate.

In the midst of an explosive rise of anti-immigrant policies since the 1990’s in California with Proposition 187 and across our country, a powerful social movement – the Domestic Worker Movement- was born and today is a beacon of hope for “transformational social change.” The Movement’s began in the mid 1990’s in the streets of San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles. From the east coast to the west coast, Caribbean, African, Latin American, and Asian domestic workers began to gather at their homes, parks, and worker centers to build community and to find solutions to the labor exploitation they were subjected to as nannies, caregivers, and housecleaners. Almost 20 years later, these women and community leaders are leading legal reform campaigns to eliminate labor law exclusions, and the root causes that give rise to the subjugation of domestic workers.

As a community lawyer and an activist, I often wonder: is the community-centered organizing model used by the Domestic Worker Movement furthering our quest for social justice? I have thought about these above questions extensively as one of the several lawyers who serves as counsel to the California Domestic Worker Coalition (Coalition) that led the struggle for successful passage of the 2013 California Bill of Rights. They also stem from my community organizing experience prior to law school, in the founding years of some of the Northern California domestic worker organizations, and eight years of legal advocacy and representation of domestic workers. In these roles, I have personally seen the evolution and transformation of many of the organizations, the worker leaders, and members.

The Domestic Workers Movement should not be viewed as a movement limited only to defending and advancing the rights of domestic workers because it is not. It is a grass-roots movement that is grounded on the fundamental tenet of achieving “transformational social change” in our society while organizing domestic workers as a vehicle to achieve it. Domestic Worker Bill of Rights now passed in New York, Hawaii, California, and Massachusetts, have been successful in extending substantive legal rights that were previously denied to some domestic workers, but most importantly, in galvanizing domestic workers to create organizing models that promote and uphold their human rights and that of their families, and communities in the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural arenas.


Governor Brown Signs California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights

Domestic Worker Movement’s legal reforms campaign and the community-centered organizing models have also facilitated the advocacy efforts of other policy issues impacting domestic workers. Domestic workers are the leading voice in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., advocating for just immigration reform, the elimination of the Secured Communities Program, and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Domestic workers have and continue to be fight every day to resist and combat the inequities they face as immigrant workers and to transform their lives, neighborhoods, and the institutions that oppress them. It is important to bear in mind that these organizing campaigns and legal reforms have occurred in a context of record-breaking immigration deportations that are breaking families, including those of domestic workers.

However, aside from these legal gains, the Movement’s success is premised primarily on the “personal transformation” of each domestic worker member through the leadership development and community-centered organizing.   For me, “personal transformation” happens when the mind and soul of the workers are empowered and they are given the necessary tools to become community leaders. The process toward “personal transformation” at its core acknowledges the various ways that domestic workers are marginalized not just as immigrant workers, but also as women and mothers.

In order to organize and build a movement for and led by domestic workers, the Movement has to focus on providing its members the tools to break-down the institutional barriers that impede their personal and professional development.   La Colectiva de Mujeres (The Women’s Collective) of the San Francisco Day Labor Program is a prime example of it. La Colectiva de Mujeres, founded and led by Guillermina Castellanos, former domestic worker and now immigrants rights leader, is a worker-run cooperative that helps immigrant women find employment, earn prevailing wages, and educates and empowers them to become active community leaders. La Colectiva’s strength lies in effectively combining “personal transformation” tools, such as job development skills, with political and community empowerment strategies to transform its members. A pivotal component of this process involves an emphasis on developing the social and political consciousness of its members through regular popular education trainings. These trainings provide them with the political and ideological framework to tackle the issues that they face on a daily basis, such as the socioeconomic and political reasons that trigger their migration to the United States or the legacy of slavery, racism and sexism that are the basis for the labor law exclusions that marginalize them as domestic workers in this country.

I believe the California Domestic Worker Coalition is an example that “transformational personal change” can occur. The Coalition achieved its dual purposes of extending substantive legal protections never before afforded to certain categories of domestic workers, raising the industry standards. But perhaps more importantly, the Coalition has created a cultural shift within our society that challenges us all to respect and value the labor of domestic workers.

To better understand this personal transformation, which is often difficult to quantify in the same ways we can point to laws or campaigns, I interviewed some of the Northern California worker leaders and organizers and asked them if they consider the CA Domestic Bill of Rights to be a success? If so, why? I spoke with Juana Flores, Co-Director and founding member of Mujeres Unidas Y Activas (MUA), who is also a former domestic worker, and Emiliana Acopio, a seventy-five year old domestic worker leader in Filipino Advocates for Justice (FAJ) advocating for immigrant and domestic workers’ rights.

Flores: “Yes, the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights is a success for two reasons: 1) we got overtime protections for the domestic workers that didn’t have it; 2) the workers and community have been transformed as a result of the campaign.” According to Flores, the transformation happens when there is a “shift in consciousness of the workers, when they begin to internalize that their work merits dignity and respect, and when this happens they begin to fight for equal rights, and then a leader is born.”

Acopio: “Yes, it was a moment I’ve been waiting for years. When I was next to Governor Jerry Brown and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano at the signing of the bill, I cried tears of joy.” The success for me was to see all of our hard work come to fruition. “I never imagined that I would go to Sacramento and speak in rallies and do legislative visits and people would hear about my story.” They heard me and because of that we have a bill of rights.”

Flores speaks from experience, she joined MUA in the mid 1990’s and was transformed, as she describes, from a shy domestic worker member that didn’t know her rights to feeling empowered to assert them. She is now a national and international domestic worker leader and advocate. She has testified before the ILO Convention in Geneva, Switzerland on behalf of domestic workers and is today a recognized leader. Similarly, for Acopio, at the start of her community work, she was shy and didn’t want to speak in public or to talk about her own story as a worker in her home country or as a caregiver in the United States. Today thirteen years later, Acopio now is one of the strongest leaders of the Northern California Domestic Worker Movement.

Avila: What triggered your transformation and that of other workers?  

Flores attributes her personal transformation to the community education and leadership development that she received at MUA. Flores said, “in the early organizing years, we formed small groups where women would talk about their problems, among them was their employment issues, over time at MUA we knew that if we wanted to engage in legislative campaigns to change the working conditions for domestic workers, we first had to start by building our membership base through outreach and education that addressed the multiple issues faced by immigrant women and the power dynamics that very often keep our members marginalized at home and in the workplace.”

Acopio emphasized that she would have never been a part of the Movement if it had not been for the community support she has received from FAJ. She said that FAJ is like her home, she trusts them and knows that when workers unify great things can happen. She feels she was transformed by the leadership development and know your rights trainings. She now knows her rights and is willing to fight with other workers for better conditions. The “personal transformation” that both Flores and Acopio refer to involves focusing on the needs of the members.

For Flores, this means providing intensive peer education that addresses domestic violence, fear and anxiety of retaliation and deportation, and providing some type of safety net for the members and their families. She believes that community education, such as the “know your rights” presentations on worker and immigration rights is fundamental for the members to gain the trust of the worker centers. This process gives members the tools to believe in themselves and to get involved in their communities. Flores added, “the members become spokespeople of their own social cause, which is when a leader is born.”

Avila: Has the various Domestic Worker Bill of Rights eradicated the root causes that give rise to the social and political inequality that domestic workers are subjected?

Flores said, “No, in order to achieve that we need a lot of more people power.” What we’ve learned is that nobody gives us any protections, we have to fight for them, when we get them we have to enforce them, but it does not end there, because we have to continue to build the consciousness of more workers to change the systems that are mistreating us as women and immigrants.”

For Flores, “transformational social change” happens over time one worker at a time and we need two things to achieve it: 1) we need to reach a large base of workers and 2) then we need to organize them into strategic campaigns that ultimately will link with other movements.

Acopio: “No, I do outreach and tell caregivers about the new law and they are still afraid of filing complaints to get their overtime.” Domestic workers are still being exploited according to Acopio and she believes that this is because employers take advantage of them because they are undocumented. She added that despite the continuous exploitation of domestic workers the sacrifices that were made by thousands of domestic workers to pass the bill in Sacramento was worth it to her. It was worth it because domestic workers got the courage to speak at rallies and to march in the streets of Sacramento.” For Acopio, that shows that “we are not afraid and that after all we can defend ourselves and say that it’s not okay for employers to take advantage of us. We said No more!”

The Coalition’s success is rooted in its ability to transform its members into becoming agents of “transformational social change.” The Coalition succeeded in changing the discourse of domestic work, bringing it out of the “shadows” of the private home and into the public sphere after years of organizing and leadership development. While for the workers and for me, the Movement has been a profound life changing experience nourished by our commitment to social and economic justice. From the “Mujeres” (Women), I’ve learned that community-centered organizing is an act of love for humanity and with it we can achieve the unthinkable.

California Domestic Workers Coalition

Labor and Immigration, Law and Social Movements | Comment

#Labor Dispatches: Tuba Group Workers’ Struggle Gestures Towards a Broader Labor Movement in Bangladesh

Tuba Group Workers Demand Workers Right to Form a Trade Union (August 18, 2014)

“We are building a national, democratic workers’ rights movement” explains Moshrefa Mishu, Garment Workers Unity Forum (GWUF), on their recent campaign by Tuba Group workers for their wages and benefits that has led to street protests, hunger strikes, and being on the receiving end of violence by police.

“Our movement is not over.”

She continues countering the naysayers:  “The workers’ have shown an aspiration to realize greater workers’ rights, and we want to spread this aspiration to all workers in Bangladesh.”

Ms. Mishu’s rejection of the Tuba Group workers wage strike as one being parochial and pertaining to one factory owner was echoed by workers’ themselves. Chanting for all workers to struggle and to be united, workers spoke of the challenges of their movement.


Since May, the garment workers of five factories owned by Delwar Hossain, the same owner of Tazreen Fashions where a factory fire resulted in the deaths of at least 112 workers, have been struggling for their owed wages and benefits. Earlier, in February of this year, the court brought formal charges against Hossain for homicide, and he remained in jail until he was released on bail on August 6. Incredibly, the reason given for the bail was so that he could pay the workers wages owed. He remains out on bail.

From July 28, about 1,600 workers from five factories of the Tuba Group went on an 11-day hunger strike demanding the payment of salary for three months of work, overtime and an Eid holiday bonus. While the workers eventually received three months pay from the garment workers trade association – BGMEA, Hossain closed his five factories thereby resulting in the loss of jobs of 1,600 workers. At present, workers are still owed an Eid bonus, vacation pay and termination benefits. Using a section of the Bangladesh labor law that allows employers not to pay wages in the event of an “illegal strike”, Hossain is now seeking to escape from paying mandated termination benefits. This issue will be decided in the courts. GWUF will continue to use the legal channels, as well as continue with organizing. Just recently, GWUF announced its intention to pressure the Labor Ministry if the workers demands are not met and to continue its demonstrations.

In the absence of any financial safety-nets like unemployment insurance or a strike fund, workers are taking some heart-wrenching measures to survive including from eating one meal a day, borrowing money from friends or taking high interest personal loans. One worker aptly named Hero sent his family back to his rural village where expenses are less, so that he could look for work.


Anwar                                        Meeta                                         Hero

Another worker, Meeta, explained that she was forced to pull her child from school because she did not have money to pay the tuition. She said she felt humiliated because she was being penalized for only asking for what she is owed by law. Because none of the workers received a bonus for the Muslim religious holiday, Eid, after the holy month of fasting, many families were unable to celebrate the holiday with joy. Workers reported that they are being blacklisted from jobs once employers learn they worked at Tuba factories. In essence, they feel like they are being penalized for fighting for their legal rights.

Tuba Worker: Run Factories According to Law

Despite a constitutional provision requiring the Government of Bangladesh to “emancipate the toiling masses the peasants and workers … from all forms of exploitation” it has been woefully derelict in its obligation to the workers. Instead, it has used its police to violently disperse workers engaged in a peaceful hunger strike.

The story that unfolds beginning from May of this year to the present closure of the factories that has made 1,600 workers unemployed may not seem to have a positive ending. Obtaining the wages successfully came with serious consequences to the workers including police use of excessive force, including rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and batons.

Photo by Mehedi-Hasan Dhaka Tribune

I sat down with workers in the movement to understand what are the next steps and how can those sympathetic to their cause show solidarity.

When asked about the future of the movement, Anwara says: “what can I tell you about my vision for the movement. I don’t have the language for that. My life is filled with sorrow. At such a young age, my life seems over. I am unemployed. “

Yet, in the midst of this dire economic reality, she regularly comes to the GWUF office, the hub of organizing, and volunteers. She continues to struggle, and hope that workers can unite, and she can work and support her family with dignity.”

Next to her, her co-worker Asma remarks and Anwara nods in agreement: “We must struggle so that we can live, and earn a wage to live. Through struggle and organizing, we can overcome our tragedies.”  Asma was injured by a rubber bullet, yet she continues in the movement.

Photo by RT



Asma at GWUF Office

I realized afterwards that my question to them, albeit in Bengali, was seriously flawed not due to translation, but in its conception, and one that perhaps plagues others observing and analyzing the Tuba workers struggle. To ask for a future vision of the movement disconnected from the present reality is a luxurious exercise in abstraction, and one that is not based on the current lived socio-political reality of workers. It is only through their struggle and engagement can a “language” emerge and a newer democratic reality for workers be imagined. It is not that Anwara, due to her lack of formal education does not have a “language” to express a vision, but because whatever is articulated will be limited by the present socio-economic reality. In that way, the vision for greater rights cannot yet be imagined under such state and economic repression. However, that such a reality in whatever form cannot be actualized without organizing and unity is abundantly clear from the worker interview and their actions. In this regard, Anwara’s statement, that she does not have a “language” is in fact an intellectually honest, and theoretically astute comment.

Asma & Anwara Call on All Workers Globally to Unite for Human Rights and Dignity in Workplace

Solidarity worker ally and organizer Azad captures this poetically by saying “unless we realize a state that loves its workers, we cannot have a democratic labor movement.’


Azad, garment worker and organizer for GWUF

Evaluating workers’ movements based on some demonstrable goal or product – like the wages obtained – only seeks to reduce the aspirations of workers to the present reality and that which is allowed under existing law. Such an evaluation is hardly visionary. In fact, the reforms to Bangladesh’s labor law leave much to be desired, as reported by Bangladesh Institute for Labor Studies in 2010 and in a 2013 statement by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Instead, we ought to seek for glimpses and gestures of a broader vision in the present struggles.

Workers in Bangladesh struggle for basic benefits under severe repressive conditions that many of us in the United States take for granted; yet, they continue to struggle knowing full well the consequences to fighting back. This unstoppable desire to speak up for what is right despite the consequences is inspiring. This clearly articulated desire coupled with the unity of workers is what prompts me to take notice of the Tuba struggle seriously, as one that promises as Mishu states, “a democratic labor movement.” For this same reason, I think that civic and labor leaders in Bangladesh, and globally should take notice of the Tuba Workers’ struggle, and lend their support.


With the closure of the factory, the struggle has reached a critical point, and one where we can provide solidarity and support. When asked how those who are aligned with workers’ issues can show support, Md. Khokon invited us all around the world, and in particular Bangladeshis, to stage a protest or a solidarity action so that they know they are not alone in their struggle.

Uniformly, workers spoke about the need for emotional and moral support. Asma asks that wherever you are join our struggle because change will not happen if we remain quiet.

Even after all that the Tuba workers have gone through, Asma said, “If needed, we will stand by you when you need us because we do not want you to suffer as we did. ”

Organizers also spoke about how low-wage workers to highly paid professionals have contributed time and finances to support the Tuba Group workers’ struggle. Their contributions have shown them an investment and interest from the Bangladeshi civil society to want to see the movement succeed. It is time now for us to broaden the base of the support so that workers know that they are not fighting for labor rights alone.


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Perspectives: Extending the Rule of Law to Industrial Interns in China


Earl V. Brown, Jr.


Kyle A. deCant

By Earl V. Brown, Jr. and Kyle A. deCant

Earl V. Brown, Jr. is the Labor and Employment Law Counsel at the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, past Co-Chair of the ABA Labor Law Section’s Committee on International Labor and Employment Law, and a Fellow of the American College of Labor and Employment Law.  

Kyle deCant is an associate (bar admission pending) at Guerrieri, Clayman, Bartos & Parcelli, P.C., a union-side law firm in Washington, DC.

As employers in the United States and around the world seek to avoid compliance with basic labor law standards by misclassifying young workers as interns, interns and their advocates are fighting back. These employers seek to drive down labor costs and increase their profit margin on the backs of young workers. However, the U.S. has long promulgated standards for determining when internships require just remuneration, and the Obama administration has recently stiffened enforcement of interns’ rights. The European Union, too, has a charter laying out basic principles to encourage educational and practical internships, and the United Nations International Labor Organization’s Human Resources Development Convention provides a framework in international law for proper vocational training. These measures are crucial to ensuring basic rule of law, and preventing internship exploitation from being the next front in a global race to the bottom.

Internship exploitation is hardly a Western phenomenon—it is also at the heart of labor unrest in the world’s fastest growing economy. China has long been at the center of the global “race to the bottom” in wages, hours and working conditions. Persistent worker protests led China in 2008 to address these abuses in a wave of labor reform legislation. These laws, notably the 2008 Labor Contract Law, aimed at eliminating exploitive practices such as the wholesale subcontracting of core work and endless temporary work contracts. These laws also enhanced penalties and remedies for employer abuses. <Read More>

Human Rights and Democracy, Law and Social Movements | Comment

Perspectives: Fighting to End Unpaid Internships in the Private Sector

By Maurice Pianko. Maurice is the founder of Intern Justice and Pianko Law Group PLLC. A graduate of Fordham Law School, his practice concentrates on wage and hour litigation under the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

Two years ago, I came up with the concept of Intern Justice. Intern Justice is comprised of private lawyers specialized in unpaid internship lawsuits. When I started, there were very few cases filed, and many former unpaid interns were afraid to speak up for fear of ruining their future career prospects. Since then, there have been over 30 unpaid intern lawsuits filed across the country, with many cases originating from my office. I’ve filed and settled more than half a dozen internship cases in addition to numerous outside of court confidential settlement agreements. I’ve brought internship cases in Missouri, Tennessee, and California — being one of the few law firms to bring these cases outside of New York. By filing many cases, we’ve tried to build case law to make it clear to private employers that employing someone without paying them is an unacceptable practice. As it turns out, to my knowledge, none of those who have stood up for their wages have had trouble finding subsequent employment.

Unpaid internships are now on the way out. In the face of continuing litigation, companies like Condé Nast have decided to end their internship programs altogether, rather than treat interns as employees who deserve to be paid like any other employee. Many more have decided to do the right thing and offer paid internship programs as a way for prospective full-time hires to gain valuable experience while still getting paid for their work. The end of the unpaid internship era could not have been possible without the courage of former unpaid interns like Diana Wang, Erica Van Rabenswaay, and Robert West, and the determination of attorneys willing to take multi-billion dollar corporations to Court so that those on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder could get fair wages. If 2012 represented the beginning of the end of unpaid internships, 2014 represents the climax of that system.

It’s not as if unpaid internships suddenly became illegal. Internships have always been a grey legal area under the Fair Labor Standards Act. For nonprofit organizations and government agencies, unpaid internships are generally acceptable as long as the intern does not have any expectation of compensation. Private companies, on the other hand, must meet six requirements set by the Department of Labor. The gist of the Labor Department’s guidelines is that the internship has to primarily benefit the intern. For years, however, private companies were able to exploit several appellate court rulings holding that they could get some benefit from the internships as long as the intern came out ahead overall.

I say “exploit” because the interns never came out ahead. In the Fox Searchlight Case, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III found that interns were typically involved in drudgery tasks that had little to no educational value, such as making copies. And this makes sense — after all, private companies typically aren’t in the business of teaching young people the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. As Boston University Law Professor Michael Harper wrote, “If they are supervising those people, it’s because those interns are going to help them get their work done.” Evidence shows that unpaid internships are far from the career booster many young people believe them to be. A 2013 study found that the median starting salary for those with unpaid internship experience was far less than those with paid internship experience. According to the study, unpaid interns are even worse off in terms of starting salary than college graduates with no internship experience. And, this doesn’t even get into the profound social consequences of unpaid internship programs in so-called “glamour fields” like journalism, entertainment, and sports.

Though my office operates as a for profit law firm, Intern Justice has never been about rounding up plaintiffs for a huge class action in which primarily the lawyers (on both sides) would benefit. Instead, this is about social justice litigation through the courts. We’ve shown that it’s okay to demand what’s yours using our judicial system. If your former employer is forcing you to resort to the courts to get paid what you should have gotten paid up-front, that’s their problem. There’s still a lot of work to do, though. The ultimate goal here is to end unpaid internships in the private sector. Getting paid for your work is the sign that your labor is respected and valued. When an intern gets a paycheck it shows that their employer respects and values their contributions. When they don’t, it can dampen earnings potential for life.

Changes in our wage laws has occurred before. At one time, child labor was widely accepted, until the Fair Labor Standards Act curbed it. Because of the work my office is doing, the same thing is happening to unpaid internships right now. Just look at how the media perception of this issue has gone from “entitled whiners” to “exploited workers.”

Those who are new to the workforce have little to offer in the way of skill and experience, and have correspondingly little bargaining power. For that reason, interns are exactly the kind of worker the minimum wage is supposed to protect. It functions as a union for those who don’t have a real union. It sets the floor of what society believes to be the bare minimum a worker should be paid. (Never mind that in most of the country, it’s impossible to live off of the federal minimum wage of $7.25). And, it allows young people trying to break into a career to have some measure of dignity in their first jobs.

There’ll always be a time and place for volunteerism, and I’m not trying to end that. Soup kitchens, hospitals, nursing homes and schools have always relied on volunteers from the community to make their institutions work, and that’s great. It’s labor exploitation on the part of for-profit private enterprises that I’m trying to stop, and if 2014 is any indication, in two years, there won’t be that much further to go.

Follow Maurice on twitter: @internjustice

Maurice is an author of a law review on this topic:  Dealing with the Problem of Unpaid Interns and Nonprofit/Profit-Neutral Newsmagazines: A Legal Argument that Balances the Rights of America’s Hardworking Interns with the Needs of America’s Hardworking News Gatherers recently published in the Rutgers Law Record.

Access to the Courts | Comments (2)

#LaborDispatches from Bangladesh

CH 2

By Chaumtoli Huq

Last year, on June 27, 2013, I visited the site of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Savar, Bangladesh, two months after the death of over 1,100 workers.  A mother stood looking at the site, mourning the death of her daughter who worked in the garment factory. Fixated on the debris, that had not yet been fully cleared, and by then covered by rainwater, she feared that no one would remember her daughter.  Other family members at the site surrounded me as they saw my camera, and learned that I was a researcher from the United States.  They urged me to take pictures of the photographs of their daughters, wives, sisters they carried in their hands.  The request seemed curious – to take a picture of a picture – perhaps they hoped then one other person might record and therefore remember their family member.  It is as if they felt their own “recording” through photographs of their family members was insufficient.  This scene reminds me of when I would interview workers for a case, and they would share in detail what happened, but then would end with the statement:  But I have no proof.  I open with this story because it foregrounds the importance of recording, researching, remembering, and underscores the value of the researcher/scholar being on the “ground”.

Anonymity of globalization must be one of the most disempowering experiences for workers.  The family members at the site understood intuitively that individualizing and humanizing the loss of life might lead to changes in the industry’s conditions.  The garment industry’s structure, where global retailers contract with local factory owners and workers do not have a voice at the table to negotiate working conditions, places workers in vulnerable positions in terms of improving workplace standards.  Global retailers deny accountability by placing blame on powerful garment factory owners or Bangladesh local labor laws, but then garment factory owners shift blame to buyers for demanding cheaper prices, which in turn depresses local wages.  In this shifting accountability game, workers are unable to control basic aspects of their workplace conditions such as safety.  The workers of Rana Plaza and other industrial accidents demand a rigorous examination of effective solutions so that such tragedies do not reoccur.

For the next nine months, I will spend time in Bangladesh as an American Institute for Bangladesh Studies (AIBS) Fellow investigating how labor conditions have improved since the implementation of the two international agreements, Safety Accord and Safety Alliance.  My proposal seeks to interview all relevant stakeholders in the garment industry, with a particular emphasis on workers who are the intended beneficiaries of these agreements.  I hope to explore safety issues, but also to engage in broader conversations around workers’ rights and the labor movement.  Through this blog, #labordispatches, I will share my observations.

I am often asked what is my goal in this research – will I publish, will I advocate.  Surely, if policy proposals emerge from the research, those should be explored, and I will note down observations from my work.  However, I am seeking to enter this research project with an open mind.  This does not mean I erase my own lived experiences, but will make a research intervention that allows for stakeholders to articulate their own agenda.  In this respect, I find useful Professor Gayatri Spivak’s phrase: ”rearrangement of desires” as describing my task as a researcher here.  That is I cannot say that I am arriving from New York to Dhaka for this short time to help or advocate for workers because there already exists a vibrant labor movement in Bangladesh.  To begin my research with a notion of advocating for (read representation) or doing something for presumes that I  articulate what changes are needed.   To impose my views seems least aligned with my overall intention to bring to the forefront workers’ voices.

That I am entering a vibrant movement for labor rights was evidenced when arriving in Dhaka, a little over a week ago.  A massive hunger strike was underway by 1,600 Tuba Group workers for the owner’s failure to pay wages and Eid bonuses.  The owner of the Tuba Group, Delwar Hossain, is the same owner of Tazreen factory where 112 workers died in a fire.  He was in jail since February 2014 for his involvement in the fire, but was released on bail on August 5.  Recently, the owners paid the Tuba Group workers their salary due to their action.  It remains to be seen what are the next steps for the workers.

Given this context, what I can do through my research is perhaps create possibilities for the “rearrangement” of dominant ideas so that certain political imaginations may emerge such that workers could articulate and advocate for themselves as to what needs to be done.  To want to document or be descriptive  here seems to be pejorative for the “scholar” who should have an “agenda” and individuate herself.    But for now it seems to be the most honest theoretical position to take.  To be clear, this does not mean there is no practical organization to my project. It is just that I am not organizing my research around certain preconceived premises or objectives.  In this regard, such an approach seems least coercive, as a democratic scholar. Further, such an approach employs a theory of marginality that I seek to put into practice not only in the content, but also in the methods of my research.

The research fellowship is funded by the American Institute for Bangladesh Studies (AIBS)

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Human Rights and Democracy, Inquire, Investigate, Labor and Immigration, Law and Social Movements, Uncategorized | Comments (3)

Perspectives: Employing a Spiritual Framework to Advance the Immigrant Rights Movement

Narro picture

By Victor Narro. Victor is the Project Director for the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, and a lecturer at UCLA Law School and UCLA School of Urban Planning

With the end of any chance for comprehensive immigration reform, the immigrant rights movement finds itself at a critical crossroad.  The current humanitarian crisis of thousands of children in detention continues without any leadership from the White House and Congress to declare them as humanitarian refugees. At the same time, we must stop President Obama’s policy of massive deportations and separation of families.


Undocumented Leaders Handcuff Themselves to White House Fence;
Not 1 More Deportation Campaign; Photographer: NDLON

What immigrant rights advocates are facing today is not unlike similar situations in the past. In 2007, we coped with the last failure to accomplish CIR while fighting off local initiatives like Secure Communities that threatened immigrant communities. In 2001 post 9-11, we went from a campaign for unconditional amnesty to defending against the impact of the Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. With past unsuccessful attempts at CIR, we engaged in cycles of pointing fingers, shifting blame and attacking other strategies while defending our own.

As an immigrant rights advocate for 30 years and someone involved with previous efforts at CIR, I have seen the harm these cycles of shifting blame have caused the immigrant rights movement. In a blog last February, I wrote about advocates committing “malpractice” on the immigrant communities impacted by our strategy decisions, just as lawyers commit malpractice when they fail to exercise due diligence or are grossly negligent in the representation of their clients.  I argue that the major crossroad where we find ourselves in the fight for humane immigration reform calls us to step back, reflect, and assess our strategies to create a more just and humane society for millions of immigrant families. If managed well, our next steps in this critical moment could bring greater solidarity away from a sometimes-fractious movement. At this crossroad, our leadership model must shift, or we risk gross negligence.


March on ICE, Phoenix Arizona
Photographer: Chandra Narcia

I argue for a new approach to move the fight for immigration rights forward. We should move forward together in solidarity and compassion to forge new strategies through a spiritual framework. What does this mean?

Though my own work is secular, I have often drawn from faith leaders’ examples to guide my approach. The spiritual inspiration of my life as an activist is St. Francis of Assisi, the peace activist of the Middle Ages. Eight hundred years ago, this humble person transformed his world and renewed the Catholic Church by simple but revolutionary acts of practicing his faith as it had never been practiced before. St. Francis was a man of peace who was known for building bridges of communication, understanding, and cooperation between warring people, groups, and nations. Francis lived during the highly turbulent period intense religious polarization with the Christian crusades and the inquisition. It was also the period of transition from a feudal society to a mercantile-based economy, which led to economic inequality, and oppression of the lower class. St. Francis led a social-justice movement for the poor and underprivileged during the Middle Ages.

The way immigrant rights activists treat one another must be as just as the justice we seek in the end. This framework of spirituality is the essence of my upcoming book, Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice. I argue that embedded in the work of social justice activism are values that we find in different spiritual faiths like compassion for others, and I encourage social justice activists to embrace them in their daily work. As immigrant rights advocates, we have the foundation of spirituality within us from which we can approach the work together. We must look inward and ask not what we did wrong, but reflect on our work as immigrant rights activists drawing from our different spiritual values. Each of us can accomplish this through our own respective spiritual or religious practice or through a collective process of reflection that promotes inclusion and solidarity building. This spiritual framework relies on two principles from Franciscan spirituality: 1) interconnectedness; 2) leadership through humility.


Shut Down ICE – Civil Disobedience
Eloy Detention Center – Arizona
Photographer: Chandra Narcia

Interconnectedness between all of us in social justice work is an important and indispensable part of an activist’s life. This is especially true in the immigrant rights movement where we find ourselves dispersed in so many different strategies and campaigns, and often disconnected from each other. St. Francis of Assisi, the peace activist of the Middle Ages, would spend long hours with each of his brothers, who formed the first band of followers of his teachings. He lived the heart-to-heart connections with his group of brothers. Similarly, in the movement for social justice, we are all interwoven – ourselves, our lives and our work. Francis had the capacity to go deep into someone’s heart and share the joy and sadness of that person. As immigrant rights activists, we have the potential to connect through our hearts and let that connection be the driving force that enables us to struggle together, to strategize together, and to win together. In reaching such a potential of human relationship, we will stir the spiritual core inside each of us to become the foundation from which we move forward with a collective strategy. This is true solidarity in action within the social justice movement – our interconnectedness with one other, the spiritual force of love and compassion for each other, much in the same way of the unconditional love that Francis had for all of creation.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, poet, scholar, and human rights activist, found his connection to the Civil Rights Movement through his relationship building with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his Fourth Mindfulness Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening, he states that we must be determined not to spread news that [we] do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord.”  He goes on to state that we must “make daily efforts, in [our] speaking and listening, to nourish [our] capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in [our] consciousness.” See Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book. Berkeley California: Parallax Press, 2000.

Active listening without passing judgment is a gift that we can give to each other to enhance our work for immigrant rights. When we are really heard, and the other understands our meaning and emotions, we feel valued and respected: a condition necessary for strengthening the immigrant rights movement. There is a no more precious gift, to give or receive, than to listen to the words of another. This process of active listening and loving speech will enable us to be mindful of and respect the dignity within each one of us.

Hardworking immigrant families’ vulnerability to separation—at the rate of 1,100 deportations daily—has created the urgency for us to interconnect in a way that binds us together. We need an interconnectedness that enables us to move forward with a multiplicity of practices and diverse strategies that we must embrace and support.

The second principle we must embrace is a model of leadership through humility. To be humbled, it is said, strengthens a generous spirit. Like the principles of non-violence, humility in social justice work is not submission or a state of passiveness; rather, it is a powerful force for change. Francis understood that the biggest threat to humility was the power of human pride and ego. For him, humility in its highest form (holy or spiritual humility) always puts pride and ego to shame. Francis saw humility as the only way to prevent our ego from poisoning our pride. In this way, humility is a form of “self-activism” where we, as immigrant rights activists, take proactive steps to ensure that we act for the act itself, and not to feed our selfish desires or be puffed up by the praises of others. Just as Francis preached a way of life through the principle of humility, we too must approach our work for immigrant rights in the same way. We must exercise humility in our everyday work – in a campaign, in a picket line, a protest, giving a presentation or workshop, representing a client, visiting policy makers and other strategies employed. Cesar Chavez, a strong follower of St. Francis, once said, “It really doesn’t matter in the final analysis how powerful we are, how many boycotts we win, how many growers we sign up, or how much political clout we possess, if in the process we forget whom we are serving. We must never forget that the human element is the most important thing we have – if we get away from this, we are certain to fail.” See Garcia, Mario T. The Gospel of César Chávez: My Faith in Action. Lanham, Maryland: Sheed & Ward, 2007. In whatever activity we engage in as part of our immigrant rights work, we must always do it through the principle of humility that Francis teaches us. After all, true leadership is about knowing when to step back so that others can step forward.

With the current dilemma facing us today, we have a golden opportunity to implement a strategy that could incorporate this concept of humble leadership. A fundamental premise of organizing is that we are more effective in accomplishing our goals when persons impacted by the issue we are confronting lead. The best recent example that demonstrates this concept is the campaign to win Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

In the  UCLA Labor Center’s 2012 publication  Undocumented and Unafraid, we chronicled the immigrant youth movement across the country that led to Obama issuing DACA in June 2012. In high-stakes actions, DREAM activists have shown us the way to fighting for immigration reform through a nonviolent strategy of disruption. DREAMers staged high-profile actions to call attention to the paradox of their exclusion from American society, such as the “Trail of Dreams,” a 1,500-mile journey to the nation’s capital, and staging DREAM graduation ceremonies. The McCain Five were the first DREAM Act students to submit to arrest for the first time in history and the Wilshire Nine were DREAM Act students arrested while blocking a major traffic intersection in front of the federal building in West Los Angeles. This escalated to major civil disobedience actions inside the Senate building in Washington, D.C.


Undocu Bus Ride For Justice – Civil Disobedience
Democratic National Convention – Charlotte, NC
Photographer: Chandra Narcia

The moment of truth for this immigrant youth movement came with a meeting in L.A. between the DREAM activists and a group of immigrant rights legal advocates from National Immigration Law Center, MALDEF, NDLON, ACLU, Advancing Justice, and other key immigrant rights groups. These lawyers drafted memos supporting the DREAM activists’ claim that President Obama could grant them deferred action. In addition, these young activists asked Professor Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration and constitutional law scholar at UCLA Law School, to draft a sign-on letter to the President outlining the arguments as to why he should seriously consider granting administrative relief for DREAM Act eligible youth. When a core group of young leaders from this DREAM activist network met with White House staff, they laid out the arguments from their strategy meetings with the lawyers, and the letter from Professor Motomura.  The legal scholars and legal advocates that have been meeting with these young leaders were not present at the meeting with the White House. Instead, they stepped back to enable these youth activists to step forward. This is a great example that we must follow in our next steps with pressuring President Obama to stop the deportations and issue administrative relief, now that CIR is all but dead.

Our obligation to immigrant families requires us to use our leadership positions to amplify the visibility of community members, workers and students most impacted by the separation of families, continuing deportations and lack of access to society because of their immigration status. The collective leadership of the immigrant rights movement needs to step back and allow undocumented community leaders to assert themselves as more than just storytellers, as people who can stand and act on their own behalf.  We must enable this new wave of community leadership to emerge and lead as we begin to reflect, re-analyze, and shift to new strategies that not only support alternative models but also ensures accountability to a spirit of solidarity with one another. At this pivotal moment, we have to exercise a form of leadership where we co-create the struggle for immigration reform together. If we are to develop a movement that is strong and sustainable, new leadership must emerge, and we must allow it to flourish; we must trust and embrace it.

In conclusion, as we struggle with the present failure of CIR and the dismal situation impacting immigrant families and children today, let us embrace a new approach to moving forward together. Let us create a spiritual framework of humility, compassion and respect that will provide for a more cohesive collective strategy and a stronger movement as we continue the fight for immigrant rights The reality we are facing today is a challenge for all of us to express and share our spirituality with one another with the hope of making the struggle for immigrant rights compassionate, fulfilling, caring, and healthier for all of us. It is time for us to free up the spirituality inside of us, let it come out, and allow it to become a way for our hearts to connect and create true solidarity.

Follow Victor on twitter @NarroVictor

Read Victor’s piece on Law@theMargins:  Perspectives: Worker Centers and the AFL-CIO National Convention – Law at the Margins

Inquire, Law and Social Movements | Comment (1)

Perspectives: Whose Movement? Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Four Years Later


By Terri Nilliasca

Terri Nilliasca is a daughter of a Filipina domestic worker and decade long volunteer and ally of Damayan. She is currently working at the United Auto Workers in the Global Organizing Institute assisting in curriculum, research, and leading popular education workshops for members and organizers.

This past weekend, April 26-27, I travelled with Damayan, a Filipino migrant workers center, to Washington, DC for the 4th National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) Congress. It was an uplifting and powerful experience to be among hundreds (about 500) women, mostly immigrant and women of color fighting for better working conditions and dignity and respect. Members of Damayan love travelling together; being a member of Damayan helps to mitigate the profound loss of family and home that is the deep undercurrent to the life of a migrant worker. Workers also found a sense of strength and dignity, being together from across the nation; the diversity, yet similarities of the experiences providing a thread that bound the workers together. This is no small accomplishment given the nature of domestic work – isolated, individual, and denigrated as not actual “work.”

NDWA sign pose copy

NDWA 2014 Congress

The NDWA was shortly formed after the successful winning of the nations’ first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. After this victory, funders flocked to the NDWA, to start similar legislative campaigns across the nation. In fact, arguably, the Congress I attended could not have happened without a well-funded Alliance. The question, I reflect on this May Day, is whether these “domestic worker bill of rights” have actually changed the working conditions of domestic workers and whether this legislative tactic is more than a symbolic victory.

On July 1, 2010, both houses of the New York State legislature passed the NY Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (NY DWBR), which extended minimal legal protections to the estimated 200,000 domestic workers in the state, and several months later, Governor Patterson signed it into law. After almost a century of exclusion from legal structures and protections, domestic worker advocates celebrated the passage of the bill as a catalyst to bring the domestic work industry out of the shadows of the “private” home and into the “public” sphere of regulation and public discourse. The DWBR was the nation’s first bill to specifically address the rights of domestic workers. After the NY Bill of Rights was passed, the National Domestic Workers Alliance formed, a well funded organization that has now spearheaded campaigns to pass similar “domestic worker bill of rights” across the United States; successfully passing these new laws, in California and Hawaii, and pending bills in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The passage of a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in NY was the culmination of seven years of organizing by a coalition of NY grassroots domestic worker organizations. The decision to spend seven years lobbying and organizing for a “Bill of Rights,” and now the decision to spend many more years to pass similar bills in other states is a decision to invest in formal legal equality. The costs and benefits of that decision remain unevaluated. Several radical lawyers and activists offer us different tools and techniques to evaluate the use of legal reform in organizing campaigns and campaigns for transformational change. The question for activists and allies is whether the legislative campaign and the corresponding cost in time, funding & organizing efforts addresses the stated goal of ending the subjugation of domestic workers.

First, I think it is helpful to look at origins on the NY DWBR. The campaign for the NY DWBR was grounded by a coalition of grassroots organizations consisting of domestic workers. Domestic workers led some of these non-profits but some were led by college educated staff. At one time, the organizations involved were: CAAAV’s Women Workers Project, Andolan: Organizing South Asian Workers, Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, Unity Housecleaners, Damayan Migrant Workers Association, and Adhikaar for Human Rights and Domestic Workers United. The coalition was named NY Domestic Workers Justice Alliance, although this name and the names of the smaller grassroots organizations are mostly lost in history, with Domestic Workers United (DWU) becoming the face of the movement to pass the legislation in NY. The campaign in New York was remarkable because of its ability to attract allies with institutional power, from labor unions to Left luminaries like Francis Fox Piven. Under DWU’s leadership, there was also a strong relationship with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), who took the position of organizing employers of domestic workers to embrace the new standards and protections for domestic workers.

Many activists, community leaders, and politicians hailed the passage of the NY DWBR as a victory of momentous proportions. NY Governor Patterson, after signing the Bill into law, proclaimed “Today we correct a historic injustice by granting those who care for the elderly, raise our children and clean our homes the same essential rights to which all workers are entitled.

However, most lawyers, privately, agree that in actuality the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights are minimal, i.e. 3 days paid vacation after one full year at same employer, guarantee of one day of rest off a week, access to workers’ comp, a broad definition of domestic workers as workers under NY Labor law, inclusion in NY Human Rights Law for protection against discrimination. In fact, many of the legal “gains” appears to be merely symbolic and duplicative of legal rights were already codified into law but most domestic workers are unable to enforce.  For instance, domestic workers who “live-out” of their employer’s residence were already entitled to overtime under the Fair Labor Standard Act since 1974.  Enforcement of individual rights by workers/women of color who are touched by multiple points of systemic oppression is notoriously difficult. The Nation discussed the issues of enforcement in a 2012 article, saying that, “Since November 2010, when the law went into effect, and mid-February of 2012, only five complaints had been brought to resolution.”

Many domestic workers have been able to negotiate much better working conditions for themselves without the use of the DWBR. Filipina domestic workers report that they are often able to negotiate 2 weeks paid vacation and other benefits. One organizer I spoke to explained, “Many of our members are able to negotiate much better conditions than what is provided for under the Bill of Rights, in fact they are nervous that the employer might bring it up as an excuse to offer less. You know, they might say, “Well why should I give you 2 weeks when legally I am only required to give 3 days?”  Although, according to this organizer, this never happened, yet it remains a worry for some members.

This story of domestic workers winning better working conditions outside the non-profit industrial complex bring me back to the question of the use of legislative strategies to address systemic oppression. The formation of the National Domestic Worker Alliance, and the launching of a similar campaigns for a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights throughout the US, indicate a significant moment in domestic worker organizing and an opportunity to build a strategic approach to the change that domestic workers seek. The role legislative advocacy can have in winning that transformation is an important question for this struggle.

Social movement activists and scholars have long considered and debated what role legal reform can and should have in creating transformative change.  I pose the question as to whether the decision to invest organizing resources, time and money into a legal, reform strategy is worth the minimal legal gains achieved by these Bill of Rights and the potential legitimization of an oppressive system.  I also ask the broader question of the role of law reform in social change.  I question whether legal reform strategies emerging from professionalized non-profit centered resistance is the most effective method for achieving the change that domestic workers want and need.

Rikke Mananzala and Dean Spade, in their essay, The Nonprofit Industrial Complex and Trans Resistance, present a cautionary note for activists working within the non-profit structure. They identify several key concerns that are applicable in the context of analyzing the use of a legal reform strategy. One concern addresses the tendency for most non-profit groups to hire primarily white, college educated staff and the resulting concentration of power and decision making in the hands of people with class and often times race privilege and not directly suffering the oppression themselves. The authors also raise the issue of decision-making models that are centered in the hands of the people with education, wealth, and class privilege.

In my article, Some Women’s Work: Domestic Work, Class, Race, Heteropatriarchy, and the Limits of Legal Reform, I posed some additional questions to consider, some of which can be answered now and some that are still waiting to be asked. Given the pitfalls of working within the non-profit industrial complex, it is important to also ask questions related to funding and infrastructure. How does a legislative strategy affect funding within the non-profit industrial complex?  Does the chosen strategy funnel funding away from efforts to build organizations that are led by domestic workers? Does the campaign for legislation divert funding and resources from smaller, more grassroots domestic worker organizations?

Do these campaigns distribute power from middle-class, college educated, professional organizers to domestic workers or away from domestic workers? How do decisions to compromise on sections of the Bills get made; is it through a difficult, shared decision making process or through backroom deals with lawyers and politicians? And in the evaluation of the alliance work, it is important to ask if one group became the spokesperson for all the groups in the alliance? Did the alliance work help the individual groups grow stronger, or was funding channeled away from the smaller, grassroots groups and towards the group that was advocating for legislative reform?

Today, in NY only a few of the grassroots organizations that were part of the coalition to pass the NY DWBR are still standing, and some are just shadows of their former selves. I am a volunteer attorney with DAMAYAN, one of the founding organizations of the coalition. Legally, our members have seen their lives transformed through immigration remedies for labor trafficking victims but most have rarely used any of the new protections won in the NY DWBR. As people’s lawyers, when evaluating any tactic or strategy, this is where we MUST start – at the real life experiences of those we claim to serve.

Circling back to the NDWA congress, I witnessed a client of mine, a trafficking survivor, give a moving presentation on trafficking with explanations of the root causes of trafficking, the scope of the problem, and a critique of the narrow definition of trafficking under the law. The first time I met this worker he was severely traumatized from his trafficking experience. Through the wonderful work and support of Damayan and Safe Horizons, he is now a leader, even without yet winning his legal case. (His petition is still languishing at USCIS).  For me, this was the highlight of the Congress.

However, what struck me about the Congress was what didn’t happen. There was no presentation of the budget, no annual report, no report from the Board of Directors. The BOD consists of domestic workers and some staff from different affiliate organizations; Damayan has 2 members on the Board. The Congress consisted of skill building workshops and unfortunately there was limited time for affiliate organizations to talk, share, and build together. The workshops were not ideological or political but rather skill-based, like “How to Talk to the Media.”

Imagine if there were workshops like “Forced Migration and a Global Economy” or “Immigration and the Global Trade Issues” or “Privatization & Destruction of Public Sector Unions and Domestic Work.” These kinds of workshops give an ideological framework for domestic workers to analyze the root causes of their material conditions.

So this May Day, the question to ask, is how have the lives of domestic workers actually changed by organizing efforts for legal reform? The question needs to be asked of the workers themselves. As Linda Oalican, domestic worker and Overall Coordinator of Damayan said when discussing the importance of a movement led by domestic workers and their experiences, “Buhay natin, ang movement Natin” “This is our lives, our movement.”

barnard with Linda copy

 Note from Author: This piece reflects my thoughts only and is not the official position of Damayan Migrant Workers Association, their members or their board

Inquire, Labor and Immigration, Uncategorized | Comment