With an influx of local migrant workers, campus and community organizers are collaborating to create a safe and fair environment for immigrants.
The newest of Ann Arbor’s organizations working to protect the rights of migrant workers, the Washtenaw County Worker Center, will hold a worker’s rights training seminar June 11.
The center, which opened earlier this month, advocates workers rights and promotes collective action, said University alum Daniel Hirschman.
Hirschman, who volunteers at the center, said WCWC is organizing English as a Second Language courses to be held in Detroit and at a local church.
WCWC also holds individual conferences with workers to discuss work-related issues. They have a phone number for workers to call if they have any questions or concerns.
Hirschman said a major goal of the WCWC is to have the center run entirely by migrant workers.
WCWC is responding to poor workplace conditions and challenges immigrants face when assimilating in the United States.
RC Prof. Ian Robinson said employers often exploit migrant workers.
One way migrant workers are exploited is that they are paid less than the living wage – the necessary wage to meet the basic needs of a family – in an industry where employers can afford to pay more.
Breaking the basic laws that regulate the labor force is another form of exploitation, Robinson said. These basic laws include working condition regulations and minimum-wage laws.
Robinson said that in some Ann Arbor restaurants, migrant workers are not paid overtime and do not have safe working conditions.
Students occasionally face the same problem with overtime, but they usually know this is illegal, Hirschman said – whereas migrant workers may not.
The WCWC is working in collaboration with Latinos Unidos of Michigan – an organization that represents Michigan’s Latino community – and two local churches, St. Mary’s Student Parish and First United Methodist.
Proyecto Avance Latino Mentoring Association, a tutoring group, and Migrant and Immigrant Rights Awareness, a University student group, also work with the local migrant worker population.
MIRA was started by a group of students who traveled to the Mexican border to meet with people who work with migrant workers. The trip was part of a RC course Robinson has taught for the past five years.
The last visit he made with his students was during Spring Break earlier this year. They traveled to three border cities – Nogales, Sonora and Altar – to interact with factory workers and managers, community organizers and families who tried to immigrate to the United States.
Robinson said many students are affected by the RC trip.
In Altar, the students visited the central plaza where many Mexicans intending to immigrate to the United States gather.
Students are often met with questions about themselves. This year, Robinson said, there were more questions than in the past.
Robinson said a common question was, “Why do you hate us? You need us.”
Robinson said the students are then faced with the most difficult question – “What are you doing about it?”
Looking the migrant workers in the eye after they have explained what has happened to them and the conditions pushing them away from Mexico, common student responses – such as “I am raising my consciousness” – do not seem adequate, Robinson said.
He said the situation can be very uncomfortable for the students.
Students are especially uneasy at the end of the trip. Robinson said the students simply jump in a van and they drive “merrily” across the border.
They usually do not have to show any papers to the border patrol, a situation entirely different from migrant workers.
The workers face a dangerous three-day trek across the border. Robinson said about 500 people die each year trying to cross the border – a number that increases every year.
Many of the migrants crossing the border are about the age of college undergraduates, making the students aware of their fortunate situations as United States citizens, he said.
Hirschman, who traveled with Robinson in 2004, said the experience changed his life.
Hirschman told the story of Juan – a man who was caught and deported by the United States border patrol.
Juan attempted to cross into the United States with his wife and son.
But the “coyote” – the slang reference for an illegal guide – who helped the family cross the border left the family stranded after Juan’s son was injured.
Juan separated from his wife and son briefly to go into town, but was captured.
When Juan spoke with Hirschman, he knew nothing of the status of his family.
“It was very emotional. These people put a lot on the line,” Hirschman said.
Hirschman said the migrant worker population has grown significantly in the past five to six years.
As immigrants find a place to settle, family and friends tend to follow, he said.
He added that in the last 15 years, the migrant population has spread across the United States rather than concentrating in certain areas in the South and Southwest.
Hirschman said the wave of migrant workers hit Ann Arbor about six years ago.
Since 2000, the city’s migrant population has been steadily increasing, he said, mirroring the growth nationwide.
Working in Ann Arbor
In a survey of local immigrant restaurant workers released May 19, the Restaurant Workplace Project found:
– Most migrant workers in Ann Arbor earn between $6.50 and $8.50 an hour.
– One in five works for more than 50 hours per week.
– 20 percent have slipped and injured themselves on the job.
– Only 37 percent receive overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours in a week.