In September 2011, former migrant fair workers, CDM, and a binational coalition of workers’ rights advocates filed a petition under the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC)—the labor side accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The petition charges that the United States government has failed to enforce its domestic labor laws, promote compliance with minimum employment standards, and protect migrant workers.
The petitioners are Mexican H-2B temporary workers who worked for various traveling carnivals and fairs between 2007 and 2009. During their employment, the U.S. employers paid the petitioners a low, flat weekly wage that was far below the minimum federal and state wage. Furthermore, like many H-2B workers, the petitioners paid substantial recruitment fees for work in the United States and incurred significant work-related expenses, which were never reimbursed by their employers, as required by U.S. law. The carnival and fair employers also exposed the petitioners to unsafe working conditions and unsanitary housing conditions, and refused them work breaks, among other complaints. Finally, no one informed the workers of their rights under the law at any point during their recruitment or employment.
The facts of the petitioners’ cases are not unique, and they demonstrate a continued lack of enforcement of important workplace protections on the part of the United States government. Canada, Mexico, and the United States have an affirmative duty under the NAALC to ensure that employers comply with domestic labor laws, and also to protect the migrant workers in their territories. The ongoing abuses documented in the petition demonstrate that the U.S. government fails to enforce its wage laws equally for migrant workers and fails to investigate complaints and inspect and monitor workplaces employing migrant workers.
Because the work visa ties migrants to a single employer, migrant H-2B workers are especially vulnerable to workplace abuse. Many workers never complain about minimum wages or safety violations because they reasonably fear that the employer will retaliate against them by both firing and reporting them to immigration authorities. Because of retaliation, migrant workers must rely on government agencies to effectively enforce the laws, as well as to monitor and inspect workplaces with migrant workers. Lack of enforcement affects both immigrant workers and U.S. workers who are vulnerable to wage depression if wage laws are not properly enforced across the entire labor market.
Member countries are empowered to enforce the terms of the NAALC. Petitioners requested that the National Administrative Office in Mexico investigate their allegations and take appropriate action.
Allied organizations that participated as petitioners included: Friends of Farmworkers; the Comité de Defensa del Migrante; Interfaith Worker Justice; the North Carolina Justice Center; Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project; the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC); the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); Sin Fronteras; El Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales, A.C. (PRODESC); El Instituto de Estudios y Divulgación Sobre la Migración (INEDIM); El Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador, A.C. (C.A.T.); Northwest Workers’ Justice Project (Proyecto de Justicia Laboral del Noroeste, NWJP); and The Workers’ Center of Central New York.