Exploitation related to immigration status.
Wage theft, discrimination, and harassment.
Unsafe, unhealthy working conditions.
These are just a few things that the Latino Workers Project (LWP)’s new report Struggling for a Better Life, the State of Working Latinos in Dane County found as they captured what it was like for many Latinos living and working in Dane County.
A fact-finding delegation of Latino community representatives was convened to shepherd the effort as the project engaged in worker surveys, data review, and community outreach.
“From start to finish, it probably took a year and a half to put the report together,” Workers’ Rights Center Director Patrick Hickey tells Madison365. “We didn’t find too much to be optimistic about with the results of the report.”
Workers reported rampant violations of workplace rights. Forty-three percent reported wage theft; 28 percent reported workplace discrimination; 20 percent reported work-related injuries or illness, and 25 percent of those workers said that they did not report their injury or illness at work for fear of losing their job.
Hickey says that they completed 243 surveys with Latinos and did an extra 100 or so with non-Latinos as they went door to door doing research. “We tried to zero in on those neighborhoods in Dane County that had a higher percentage of Latinos living there,” Hickey says.
Hickey puts the total number of Latinos in Dane County in the mid-30,000’s, but he’s skeptical that everybody is getting counted in the census. He believes the numbers are even higher.
“The Latino population between 2000 and 2010 here in Dane County increased 101 percent,” Hickey says. “The 2014 census says that the Latino population is now 6.2 percent. In 1990, it was 2 percent. It’s grown by leaps and bounds and continues to grow.”
The report, which was an update of the 2001 report Can’t Afford to Lose a Bad Job, was intended to show how much things had changed here in Madison over the last 15 years. “The community has grown so dramatically in those 15 years that we wanted to go ahead and redo the surveys, redo the community forums, redo the focus groups and find out if people’s job experiences had gotten better since the first time,” Hickey says.
Many of the issues that dominated the lives of Latino workers in 2001 continue to plague the community today and, in some cases, have worsened. The percentage of Latinos living in poverty has increased since 2000 and, on average, Latino families earn only 59 percent of the median income in Wisconsin. Workers in the report spoke of being trapped at the bottom of the wage scale with no way of getting ahead. Traditional avenues workers once had for challenging low wages and inferior benefits have been weakened.
“But one thing we were optimistic about from the report is the level of support and the networks of support for the Latino community that have developed since the early 2000s,” Hickey says. “There are a lot more services and a lot more organizations. There are things like LASUP, Latino Education Council, Latino Health Council, Latino Academy for Workforce Development, community centers, and better access to ESL and GED classes.”
The Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice (ICWJ) initiated the Latino Worker’s Project(LWP) 15 years ago to address challenges faced by the growing number of low-income Latino workers. The LWP documented the economic and labor conditions of the Latino community and offered recommendations to address the most pressing problems.
Exploitation, wage theft, discrimination, harassment, unhealthy working conditions and poverty wages were a huge problem 15 years ago and they still are today. Is Hickey surprised that this has been going on for so long in liberal Madison?
“I think for a lot of people [the report] would come as a surprise. I think for a lot of people, these workers are invisible,” Hickey says. “They work in manufacturing plants or places where people don’t see them so they have no idea how large of an immigrant population we have here. And they don’t hear enough about all of the violations that go on. Part of the purpose of the report is to get the word out there about what really goes on every day.”
Approximately 45 percent of workers surveyed had no health insurance from any source. Further, only 19 percent received paid sick time from their employer. Low pay, long hours, harassment and discrimination, unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, and a feeling of being trapped all contribute to high levels of stress, anxiety and mental health issues for Latino workers. The problems are magnified by the fact that many immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are barred from receiving most safety-net supports.
Hickey says that the conditions and treatment that Latino workers are enduring here in our community are outrageous and unacceptable and that it’s well past time for something to be done to address them. He says that he reviews the report less as a dispassionate academic study and more as a call to action.
“First and foremost, we need immigration reform. For so many of these individuals and our neighbors in the community, that is the primary driver of workplace abuses. Because they are undocumented, employers can pay them less than what is legal and treat them poorly,” Hickey says.
Hickey adds that at the state level in Wisconsin, he feels we are moving in the wrong direction. “We see bills introduced and passed that are making life more difficult in the Latino community and encouraging more racial profiling,” he says. “That’s something we have to fight against.”
Hickey says simple things like driver’s licenses make a world of difference for immigrants working two or three jobs.
“We also need to go back to having things like in-state tuition for undocumented students. We’re really just undercutting our own opportunities here,” he says. “We’re not letting some of our residents meet their fullest potential. It’s silly that people who are sharp and capable are not going to college and providing our state with everything they can provide them with.”
Hickey doesn’t understand where all the fear is coming from that are leading to this troublesome legislation. He says he mostly sees very hard-working people working 2 or 3 jobs to give their children a better life than they had while wanting to contribute to the economy.
“That’s the 99 percent [of them.] It’s just those rare [bad] occasions that get hyped up in the press,” Hickey says. “There’s political hay to be made by demonizing people who come here out of economic necessity. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and folks will realize that these are good people and we need to make it easier for them to adjust their status and become permanent legal residents and, eventually, citizens.”