Protesters demand respect for undocumented workers.(PHOTOS BY DAVID BACON)
OAKLAND, CA (11/23/13) — Since the Golden Arches rose above the first southern California drive-ins, workers have labored in their shadows for the lowest legal wage a boss can pay. Other fast food chains have mushroomed since, copying the same ideas. Pay workers the least possible. Keep them guessing from week to week how many hours they’ll get. If anyone gets upset, there are always many more people on the street, ready to step behind the counter, clean up the dirty tables, or stand at the grill in the heat and smoke.
Is it a surprise that many people in those jobs came to this country to feed their hungry children, or give a future to those they left behind? People will put up with a lot when they’re hungry enough. They’ll take ibuprofen to get through the shift, or line up for food at the local food pantry at the end of the month, because their paychecks won’t stretch that far. All to keep that job.
These days many of those workers have heard about strikes and work stoppages. The word is out about protests asking for $15 an hour instead of the $8 minimum.
So fast food chains are finally discovering what building service contractors and garment sweatshops have known for years. They’ve “suddenly realized” their workers are immigrants, and maybe some don’t have good immigration papers. By asking for papers, and firing those that can’t come up with good ones, the restaurants imagine they’ll restore the previous willingness of workers to accept the minimum, no questions asked.
Is that what happened at Jack in the Box in Oakland? Did the corporate office simply decide that the time had come to give workers a good scare? And did the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security help them? It wouldn’t be the first time.
In each of the last five years ICE has audited the records of over 2000 employers, ordering them to fire undocumented workers. The mass firings include thousands of janitors and sewing machine operators, as well as workers in farms, factories and meatpacking plants. Now these so-called “silent raids” have arrived at fast food joints, just in time to scare workers as they stage more walkouts and protests.
The government says forcing bosses to fire workers is more humane than deporting them. Instead of mounting the kind of factory raids immigration authorities did a few years ago, with black-clad agents carrying machine guns, ICE now says it uses this “softer” method. It has an electronic system to find and fire the undocumented – a database called E-Verify.
ICE says it targets employers who pay workers substandard wages or force them to endure intolerable working conditions. But curing intolerable conditions by firing or deporting workers doesn’t help the workers. And in the fast food restaurants, the conditions don’t change just because people get fired for not having good papers.
Beneath the benevolent-sounding rhetoric is a whispered subtext as well. If “those people” without papers can’t work, they’ll leave. But no one is heading for Mexico. People stay, but instead they lose homes and pull their kids from school, while looking for work on street corners or cleaning other peoples’ homes.
In 1999 unions said they would try to put a stop to this. At the AFL-CIO convention, they said they’d help immigrant workers get organized to raise wages and make conditions better. Unions would campaign to repeal the law, called “employer sanctions,” that makes it a crime for someone without papers to hold a job to support his or her family. But today Congress is debating laws that would make these firings even more widespread, and criminalize people even more. These bills come from both the Tea Party and mainstream Democrats, who see no problem in firing workers for not having papers.
But Maria Saucedo and Diana Rivera are not invisible, nor are they willing to be quiet. Both were fired recently at Jack in the Box in Oakland for not having papers. Their experiences are a reality check — the reality of the “silent raid” and its human cost. Today communities and unions are starting to see that the future could change in fast food restaurants because of the willingness of these two women, and others like them, to stand up and ask for that $15 wage.
But the organizations that support them have to answer their question: Is it just, to get fired because you don’t have papers? Doesn’t everyone have the right to put food on the table for their families?
I was working 35, sometimes 39 hours a week, and only taking home $500 every two weeks. So if they take away four or five hours it has a big impact. I can’t even pay the rent and our bills with what I make. Plus, I have to send money to my daughters. Sometimes I get to the end of the month and I don’t have enough money to buy food. I have to decide which bills I can pay or only pay part of them. I go to the food pantry on 98th Avenue to get food then, because I don’t have enough money to buy it.
They’d been shorting me on my check for weeks.
My last check should have been for 40 hours, and instead they only paid me for 21. I told her that if she was firing me she had to pay me the hours they owed. I told her “You know my rights — you can’t fire me without paying all you owe me.” She said she didn’t have any money available for that, and I still haven’t been paid.
Every day on the table where we put our lunch we have cans of Red Bull. Instead of drinking soda lots of people drink it so they can get the strength to keep on working. People take aspirin also for the pain. There was one young man who would take Advil with caffeine with his Red Bull, as a way to keep awake while he was working at night.
I take Herbalife that also has caffeine to get the energy to keep working. I take Ibuprofen and Advil for the pain, especially for the headaches I get because of the pressure and for the aches in my feet. If you’re working on the grill, in the heat, you have to take pills for the pain you get in your hands there too. – Due to the lack of space, this article was cut in half. Here’s the link to the entire article: http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/20289-theycall-us-illegal-fast-foodworkers-face-silent-raids.