Labor Day is a good time to remember that workplace justice, whether in the U.S. or around the globe, has never just happened naturally. Quite the opposite. Workplace justice has always arisen from two deliberate social demands that work in constant tension with the profit-seeking incentives of the free market.
It first starts with the courageous and insistent demand for fairness from workers themselves. Second, employment justice requires a corresponding affirmative political response from all of us in the larger society, declaring: Yes, we do want to be a society that guarantees fair wages and treatment for all working men and women.
Historically, the question of employment justice in America has often been thrust into the public consciousness most forcefully by the plight of immigrant and low-wage workers. For instance, it was 50 years ago this summer that César Chávez, the United Farm Workers Union and countless Texas farm worker activists brought the movement for farm worker justice to Texas, igniting a broader Latino civil rights revolution that continues to transform the state.
From those roots a larger movement for immigrant worker justice has now taken center stage, as more and more sectors of our economy have come to rely on hard-working but often-exploited immigrant workers, particularly undocumented immigrants and temporary foreign “guest workers.”
In many ways, today’s immigration policy is labor policy. The movement started by Chávez was indeed a labor movement, but the core of that movement must now focus on immigration practices as much as labor practices.
Throughout our shared history, each successive movement for labor justice has contributed in its own way to greater fairness for working families.
Each movement has made us a better, more equitable society than we were before. But none of them has fully ended workplace exploitation. Rather, it is in the nature of our striving for labor justice that new challenges will continually arise, requiring us to renew our fight for fairness, always evolving to overcome new obstacles.
First, we should enforce existing laws and adopt updated rules to better regulate employers’ increasing overuse of “independent contracting” schemes. Too often nowadays workers are being denied basic employment protections and benefits on the fiction that they are not even “employees” at all – or the related fiction that they are the employees only of some marginal, insubstantial subcontractor.
Second, we need to enact a comprehensive immigration reform law that includes essential labor rights provisions to protect both immigrants and U.S.-born workers.
Bipartisan reforms that have already been proposed would allow millions of undocumented immigrant workers to come out of the shadows and earn fair wages with full labor protections instead of being forced to work off-the-books jobs at illegally low wages paid in cash and be subject to the threat of deportation.
Additional provisions in these proposed immigration reforms are vital to prevent the widespread and increasing exploitation of temporary foreign “guest workers” by some U.S. employers and international labor contractors who, left unchecked, use these people as indentured laborers in a system that resembles legalized labor trafficking.
U.S.-born workers also suffer from unfair competition when unscrupulous employers are allowed to exploit immigrant workers in ways that undermine good wages, working conditions and job opportunities.
Third, in our now global economy, the struggle for employment justice has become inextricably intertwined with the worldwide struggle for labor fairness. International free trade agreements now critically reshape labor conditions at home and abroad.
If we want the free flow of goods and production to be truly equitable, then we must at the same time use those agreements to move steadily toward lifting up the wages and working conditions of all working people around the globe. “Free trade” must also become “fair trade.”
Some may argue that supporting stronger labor rights for immigrants and foreign workers hurts U.S.-born workers and U.S. businesses. But the pragmatic reality is that when we make it easy for unscrupulous employers to exploit immigrants and foreign workers, we actually encourage them to hire more of these vulnerable workers precisely in order to reduce wages and working conditions.
Responsible businesses that seek to provide good jobs, wages and benefits suffer a competitive disadvantage when they can be underbid by businesses that lower costs by taking advantage of vulnerable immigrants and foreign workers.
This Labor Day, we should recognize that the struggle to ensure basic fairness for all working people is one of the defining tensions that run throughout the course of U.S. history. Through this ongoing struggle for workplace fairness, we continuously shape who we are as a people and what kind of society we aspire to be.
Bill Beardall is a clinical professor of law who directs the Transnational Worker Rights Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law. He also is executive director of the Equal Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that serves low-wage workers in Texas, and for nearly four decades has practiced employment law for immigrant and low-wage workers.
A verion of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.