Wed Jul 24, 2024
July 24, 2024

Interview: An immigrant worker fights company abuse

By N. IRAZU

At the beginning of June, I interviewed Edgar Becerra, a migrant worker from Guatemala who is carrying out a defense campaign against company malpractice that left him injured, unpaid, and evicted. His story serves as an example of the daily struggle of migrant workers in this country, and his defense campaign is an example of how to fight back against the bosses and the state that defends them.

Edgar Becerra came from Guatemala to the United States for the same reason that so many Latin American people come to the Colossus of the North—in search of the better life that we all deserve and that is so difficult to find in their countries of origin. But, for Edgar, as for many others, “from a dream it turned into an American nightmare.” His experience has been one of exploitation, labor abuse, and general mistreatment by the company that brought him, MDF. While this is a particular story, it has general aspects that the immigrant workers who earn their daily bread here can identify with.

With 19 other Guatemalan workers, Edgar arrived in the United States in July 2023 to work painting houses. They were brought by MDF Painting & Powerwashing company from Guatemala directly to New Haven, Conn. With a work visa, the H2B, he says that he came “with the hope that all of us who come from a country other than this one bring, to improve our lives and that of our families back home.”

Already on his first day of work, July 13, it was obvious that something was off. First of all, the housing provided by the company was incompatible with human health. “They brought us to a house where we didn’t know what it was like to sleep in a bed in cold weather,” says Edgar. They were taken to the worksite in the back of the van, with the tools. In the first two months, four workers left due to heart, lung, and other illnesses caused by poor housing. MDF’s response was to tell them to return to Guatemala. He related that rather than a home, it was just a roof over their heads, and nothing more.

All of the workers had arrived with the very rational expectation that the company would provide them with training for the job for which they were hired. But MDF “is conspicuous by its absence, by its lack of training.” He said that “unfortunately, when we came to this country, we never knew what it was to sit in front of a conference or an expert or a capacitor that would tell us the details needed to labor.”

Not only was there a lack of training for the job, but the workers were also not provided with the personal protective equipment necessary for it. Edgar says, “The lack of training entails: we never knew what it was to use gloves, we never knew what it was to use a helmet, a harness to be at heights, which was my situation. I fell from a 40-foot ladder, a few steps down, a drop of about 36 feet.”

That fall, in September 2023, caused by a lack of personal protective equipment and training, caused Edgar to be injured and unable to work. In response, the company left him on his own. He has not received any pay in months. He was kicked out of the company house and was told the same thing the company told the other workers who got sick—to return to his country.

In no uncertain terms, he says, “The response of the company was to throw me out on the street when I was no longer useful.” The final straw, on top of that, is that MDF refused to pay any type of compensation. This experience led Edgar to comment that here “they see the migrant as an instrument, a robot without feelings.”

Edgar is currently carrying out a political defense campaign, mobilizing with other fellow immigrants and their organizations, such as Unidad Latina en Acción, to denounce these violations of their labor rights in particular, and also the treatment of migrant workers in this country in general. He says: “The public campaign that ULA (Unidad Latina en Acción) is carrying out—that is, the protests in my favor, to a right that all of us workers have in this country—is the following: […] ULA is an organization that carries in its heart legal support, moral support, of all those who are victims of companies like MDF and many others in this country, because it is not only [MDF] there are thousands of companies that use and abuse laborers, workers, that are just looking for a little bread to maintain their families.”

This story has common characteristics with those of many immigrant workers in this country. Everywhere you can find immigrant workers in low-paying, harsh industries, with a daily violation of all their labor rights, from compliance with the minimum wage, break times, personal protective equipment, and more.

This condition of the migrant worker is not accidental; It is an integral part of the functioning of the economy in the most powerful imperialist country in history. By keeping immigrant workers in precarious conditions, denying them work papers or citizenship, the state makes it easier for the capitalists of this country to extract greater wealth from them. The migrant worker has fewer resources to resort to for protection than workers with citizenship. The threat of imprisonment or deportation always hangs over their heads, in order to dissuade this sector of the working class from organizing to defend themselves.

The condition of migrant workers is also not an issue that can be understood by looking at the United States in a vacuum; we must also be able to understand it in an international context—in particular, the Latin American context, home of many immigrant workers in this country. Latin American countries are semi-colonial, where the true political power is held by imperialist countries, even if they are nominally independent. There is a constant exodus of the working class, peasants, and intellectuals to the United States for this reason. Upon arriving here, although many find better living conditions and enough money to send money to their families back home, they also experience discrimination and super-exploitation.

At the same time, immigrant workers have a position in the American economic structure of great importance. They form a large layer of the workforce in important economic sectors, from agriculture to manufacturing, to services and logistics. An example of this latent power was demonstrated in the great 2006 strike, when millions of immigrants came out to demonstrate against a law that would increase sentences for entering this country without papers. They defeated that law due to their high level of organization, mobilization, and militancy.

The unfair and cruel treatment that Edgar has faced may be shocking, but it is far from an exception. This is not an isolated case, but rather a characteristic feature of how U.S. capitalists exploit immigrant workers.

Edgar Becerra is not just standing up in his own defense, but in defense of all immigrant workers. It is important that we all follow the example and join in this defense campaign, as well as starting new ones against every instance of oppression and exploitation, wherever it presents itself. Edgar has stated that he is willing to speak in front of any crowd in support of immigrant workers. ULA continues to mobilize in his defense. To find out more on how to support Edgar’s defense campaign, go to https://ulanewhaven.org/

At the end of our interview, Edgar left a few words: “In short, I want to leave in the heart of everyone who reads this, of everyone who hears my words: It does not matter from what country we come from, if we are Central Americans, South Americans, or from another country, we are working brothers, working laborers. I want to leave in your heart that the nicest thing about being human is earning your daily bread with your head up high and in an honorable manner.”

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