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When Going Home or Quitting isn’t an Option: Mediation Can Assist Undocumented Workers in the Meat Industry

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice. If you have any questions about your individual situation it is best to seek the advice of an experienced legal professional.

The common refrain is that undocumented workers take jobs from others. But, as this recent New Yorker piece shows, some workers actually end up serving industries like the American meat industry by doing jobs no one else wants to do. It doesn’t stop there, as the piece also tells the story of Case Farms’ active pursuit of some of the most vulnerable refugees to the United States: first Mayans from Guatemala in the 90s, then Burmese refugees, now Nepalese from Bhutan — even busloads of prisoners. Stories of undocumented workers enduring extreme physical conditions at work are stories of imprisonment rather than freedom. These are cases of human rights abuse that are notoriously difficult to tackle, as employers have the perfect weapon to keep workers quiet: exposing them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When workers don’t have the law on their side, mediation can be a tool to negotiate for better conditions.

Why Can’t Undocumented Workers Simply Complain?

Undocumented workers can’t complain because they aren’t supposed to be there in the first place. The New Yorker piece does a good job of illustrating the workarounds that companies use who want to hire undocumented workers to do dangerous and or unsanitary jobs that other workers don’t want to do. According to the Immigration Control Act, employers can’t “knowingly” hire undocumented workers, and workers need to fill out I-9 forms truthfully on penalty of perjury. If employers “don’t know” undocumented workers’ status, they can easily “discover” this status later on and report workers to ICE if they step out of line. In a vast chicken processing company like Case Farms the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Why do Undocumented Workers Flock to the Meat Industry and Why is That Problematic?

Undocumented workers are often not traveling alone, they are traveling in large numbers, fleeing from political unrest. This means they can often get recruited into factory type jobs on a production line. The meat industry requires workers to work in unsanitary conditions, and to frequently encounter dangerous machinery meant for deboning and processing meat. According to the New Yorker:

In 2015, meat, poultry, and fish cutters, repeating similar motions more than fifteen thousand times a day, experienced carpal-tunnel syndrome at nearly twenty times the rate of workers in other industries. The combination of speed, sharp blades, and close quarters is dangerous: since 2010, more than seven hundred and fifty processing workers have suffered amputations.

How Can Mediation Help?

Mediation can be an intermediary between an individual or group of employees and an employer, potentially protecting the employee from being exposed to ICE. Any human rights negotiation is entered into with a keen understanding of the workers’ vulnerable position. At the consultation stage, mediation can help workers to understand their rights and learn how to negotiate with their employers. Anything that happens in mediation, either during consultation or negotiation stages is strictly confidential, so workers and employers can be assured of privacy. This may be a valuable asset to bring employers to the table who do not want to face the publicity of a trial. Mediation can help to negotiate for compensation for injuries, perhaps even in cases where the injury is an old injury and/or it can’t be proved the injury was caused by work with the employer. Mediation can be a facilitator to connect undocumented workers with human rights NGOs who could fund a trial or advocate for fairer conditions. Mediation always aims to identify the key stakeholders in any dispute –- from ad hoc union leaders, to injured and unfairly treated workers, to human rights organizations and management at different levels of a company. At Boileau Conflict Solutions, we utilize unique approaches informed by mathematics, psychology and game theory to understand the interests of all parties in a dispute and work towards a sustainable solution. We are acutely aware of the delicate and interconnected nature of human communities and the need to preserve important relationships and solve problems with non-violent approaches. We have offices in Boulder, CO, Campbell, CA and Irvine, CA. We can be contacted via Skype, Zoom or telephone or by visiting our offices. We are available 7 days a week and in crisis situations at urgent notice. Please contact us today to see how we can help.

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