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Campaign launched to inform illegal immigrant workers of rights

By Rebeca Logan
Agencia EFE, April 4, 2002

SILVER SPRING, Maryland (EFE) -- Union leaders, community activists and political leaders on Wednesday launched a campaign to organize immigrant workers and to pressure for a plan that would legalize their immigration status, following the Supreme Court that limited their rights in the workplace.

The initial focus of the campaign is to inform the immigrant community about its labor rights, since the court ruling has created confusion and fear in the community, according to Steve Smitson, attorney for the Casa of Maryland organization. "A lot of immigrants are confused by the Supreme Court decision and fear that they have lost all of their labor rights, which is not the case," Smitson told EFE.

He noted that according to the court ruling, illegal workers do not have the right to compensatory payments, but must be paid for the hours they work.

The Supreme Court decided on March 27, in the case of Hoffman Plastic Compounds vs. National Labor Relations Board, that Mexican worker Jose Castro, who was unjustly fired for participating in the organization of a union, was not entitled to $ 67,000 in compensatory payments because he obtained the job by violating immigration laws.

"The employees' organization (union), despite their (the employees') immigration status, is legal, and the decision will not stop the efforts by thousands of workers to improve their working conditions," according to Smitson.

He noted that illegal workers still have the right to receive at least minimum wage, work in decent conditions and be protected against racial, ethnic and gender discrimination.

Smitson, whose organization provides services to workers in the Washington area, added that, despite this measure, he has witnessed that workers are continuing to organize in unions to obtain better working conditions, and that the ruling will not stop such efforts.

"This ruling does not signify that the illegal workers do not have rights, but many people will try to use this decision to fire or take advantage of the workers. Therefore, it is important to educate the community," said Ana Avenda o, the legal representative of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

She noted that many companies that currently face lawsuits for failing to pay illegal workers at least minimum wage are attempting to have their cases dropped based on the new ruling.

Meanwhile, Honduran immigrant Rosa Argelia Damas said that she faced a similar case when she was fired by Band G Building Maintenance, after she joined the union.

Damas, who lives in Virginia, said that through the union, she and her co-workers were able to obtain back wages. She stressed the importance of workers uniting for increased rights.

The Honduran, who is working in the United States legally, called on all legal immigrant workers to back those whose status is not legalized, since they often work side by side.

The court ruling has been criticized by Latino organizations, labor unions, community organizations and the Mexican Embassy, which charge that the decision will create a class of "semi-slave" workers in the country.

These groups noted that they will pressure the U.S. Congress into implementing legislation to rectify the ruling when legislators return to work on April 9.