Spanish version available here.
Commissioners: Rosa María Ortiz, Rodrigo Escobar Gil, Tracy Robinson, Felipe González
Petitioners: Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, Coalición de Trabajadores de Immokalee, Rural & Migrant Ministry.
State: United States of America
Advocates representing migrant farm workers in the United States and government representatives in some ways were largely in agreement at a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on November 2, 2012, at least over the need to protect the human rights of that particularly vulnerable population. But the two sides testified from different perspectives, with the government listing the host of services it provides and the petitioning organizations speaking of conditions in which government programs are ineffective. As a way to consider bridging the gap, the U.S. delegation, led by Ambassador Carmen Lomellin, the Permanent Representative of the United States to the Organization of American States, was receptive to a request by one of the petitioners, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights (RFK Center) that the Commission conduct a country visit to evaluate the situation.
The petitioners were organized by the RFK Center but included representatives from organizations working among migrant communities in Florida and New York as well. Wade McMullen, a staff attorney at the RFK Center, read the statement of Kerry Kennedy, the RFK Center President, who could not attend due to Hurricane Sandy. He laid out the history of mistreatment of farm workers as a vestige of de jure racism against black people in the South, and summarized human rights issues facing farm workers with and without legal immigration status. Kennedy’s statement argued that the United States was not meeting treaty obligations, including binding obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with regard to areas that included child labor and sexual and physical abuse of women. Her statement noted, “every single woman I spoke with had had been sexually assaulted, badgered, or brutalized by her male boss.”
Speaking specifically to the issue of violence against migrant women was Librada Paz, of Rural & Migrant Ministry in New York, who was herself a migrant worker for over a decade beginning at fifteen years old. She grew emotional as she said that she was herself a victim but was too ashamed and afraid to say anything. In her presentation she said that such violations of an individual’s rights, as well as inhumane working conditions, left many foreign-born workers afraid to speak up when they were “refused the most common decency at the workplace.” The danger of the workplace was also of concern to Lucas Benítez, of the Coalición de Trabajadores de Immokalee, who spoke of the dangerous labor conditions faced by workers and their inability to organize. He said that migrant workers are unable to protect their own rights because large corporate buyers push down the price of the produce farm workers pick and the workers are unable to push for higher compensation.
Representing the United States, Ambassador Lomellin brought a contingent from a host of government agencies. She pressed upon the presiding Commissioners that the United States “takes very, very seriously the thematic hearings of the Commission,” and stated that the “the protection of migrant farm workers is vital to the U.S. and its economy” and “touches the very values of our society.” Following her statement, Michael Hancock, the Assistant Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, presented a lengthy list of ways that various government agencies seek to address the needs of migrant workers. Such efforts included attempts to enforce laws on payment of wages and other labor issues—regardless of immigration status—under his department as well as initiatives such as pesticide control under the Environmental Protection Agency and policing of sexual discrimination or harassment under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Lisa Ramírez, the Program Director of the Office of Migrant Education at the Department of Education, presented the government’s initiatives specifically focused on children that seek to provide education from elementary through entry to college.
Despite the agreement on the vulnerability of the individuals, the petitioners said that the list of initiatives was impressive but did not result in attainable rights. Paz and Benítez said fear of reprisals or deportation leads workers to either say nothing or say whatever the employers want them to. McMullen, speaking for himself, noted that the problem is exacerbated because legal service providers are often denied access to workers by employers who also provide housing. The issues were of particular concern to the Commissioners, who expressed interest in a state visit. Felipe González, who is also the Rapporteur for Migrant Workers, said he was especially concerned about access to justice for workers, particularly those without legal immigration status, and how the programs suggested by the State would apply to them.