Three steps to curbing subcontractor abuses

Fordham law professor calls for change in New York Times post

According to Fordham Law School Professor Jennifer Gordon, something’s got to change.

Over the summer, the unheard of happened: Subcontractors from Jamaica working under H2B visas as cleaners for luxury hotels and condos in Florida staged a strike. It’s uncommon for guest workers from other countries to walk off the job, Gordon says. They typically come to the United States to work in low-wage industries to make money to send back home, often not wanting to cause trouble.

“Guest workers … offer something hiring a local worker does not: subservience,” Gordon says in her New York Times op-ed piece, Subcontractor Servitude. “They are tied by law to the employer who sponsored their visas, which means that if they are found too ‘difficult’ for any reason—including asking that their rights be respected—the employer can effectively deport them and blacklist them from receiving future work visas.”

But for the Jamaican workers in Florida, their gripe seemed well-founded. After two months in their positions, they stopped working, complaining that what they were promised and what they received were drastically different. Instead of making a decent wage and living in comfortable housing, their paychecks were bouncing and they were crammed into small living spaces with as many as 15 people per unit.

The situation with the Jamaican workers, Gordon says, is part of a broader phenomenon with subcontracting. And it’s time for change.

Gordon says there are three essential steps to curbing the system’s worst abuses:

1. The U.S. needs to institute immigration reform that protects all workers. “When guest workers can defend their rights, the millions who labor alongside them benefit as well,” she says. “Immigration law must be amended to forbid employers from charging guest workers exorbitant fees directly or through recruiters and to protect those who report abuses from retaliation.”

2. There must be legal responsibility along the contracting line. “If workers in a subcontracting chain are abused, the firms at the top of the chain that benefit from their labor should not be insulated from financial responsibility,” she explains.

3. Reform labor laws. “Other subcontracted workers are members of traditional unions, but the National Labor Relations Act restricts their ability to protest against the employer who actually holds the purse strings in a subcontracting chain, or to bargain collectively with that employer,” Gordon says. “It is time to repeal this damaging restriction.”

Read Gordon’s full post on the New York Times.

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