Immigrant workers present a unique subset of workers in the United States. On one hand, immigrant workers make notable contributions to the American economy. More than three quarters of our agriculture workers and almost one third of construction workers are foreign-born, with the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016) describing immigrant workers as 16.1% of the American labor force. On the other hand, immigrant workers tend to be more vulnerable to labor abuse because of language barriers, cultural aversion to turning to authorities for help, and unfamiliarity with their rights as workers.
This know-your-rights series references Iowa and Nebraska law to educate the immigrant worker population and its allies on various topics such as immigrant workers rights, ways to secure worker rights, sexual harassment and assault at the workplace, and how to make administrative complaints about violations. None of the information contained herein should be understood as individual legal advice but rather as general education. Look to the end of each post for a description of the upcoming topic.
As an individual worker, you have the power to take steps now to help secure your rights in the future. While in theory your rights are absolute, on a case-by-case basis they may be difficult to claim. This difference arises from the fact that many disagreements about the violation of workers’ rights come down to one person’s word against another. Sometimes one coworker says one thing and another coworker says something else; sometimes a worker says one thing and his/her supervisor says another. While it might seem unfair that reporting a violation of your rights does not automatically result in regaining your rights, keep in mind that you would not want someone to be able to hold you accountable for a crime without first proving with evidence that you are guilty.) That said, there are simple and powerful steps you can take now to protect your rights in the future. These steps include:
- When you are hired, request a written employment By having a contract, you can save yourself a lot of stress, because a contract is an important record of your employment with an employer. A contract, which does not need to be complicated or lengthy, can also provide important evidence about the terms of your agreement. Important terms to include in your contract are:
- Your name;
- Your employer’s name, which could be a company name;
- Your start date;
- Your salary;
- Your job description;
- Your signature;
- AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, A SIGNATURE ON BEHALF OF THE EMPLOYER (e.g. if you are working for McDonalds, then McDonalds is your employer; so a general manager or supervisor might sign the contract on behalf of the McDonalds).
Other terms that would be important to include are:
- Any agreed-upon end date or guarantee of a term of the employment being available to you;
- The location of your work;
- Whether you will be given a manual relating to your work;
- Details about how and when you will be paid;
- Details about how to alert the employer of any problematic working conditions; etc.
- Keep a copy of the contract. The contract is important as a record of your work and terms, but to make use of this record, you will need to be able to refer to it later. If you do not make a copy of the contract, you cannot be certain that you will be able to produce it later. A copy of the contract does not necessarily need to be a perfect copy printed by a copy machine. A picture of the contract is sufficient for a record. If you take a picture copy of the contract, just be sure to take a clear picture of the entire page and all pages of the contract. You will not be able to make very good use of an agreement or part of an agreement that you cannot show.
- Request a personal copy of the employee manual. Every business should have an employee manual for many reasons, and it is also important for employees to keep their own First and foremost, having an employee manual is important for learning important information about workplace resources and procedures. If you have a problem with discrimination or harassment, following the procedure in your employee manual to address the situation lays important groundwork for filing a labor claim administratively or civilly, should the problem get worse. You should make sure to obtain a copy of your employee manual (or at least make sure you know how to and can access it) as soon as you start work, because demanding the employee manual directly after an unpleasant incident could put you in an unnecessarily negative light.
- Establish a doctor-patient relationship as soon as possible. It is important to have a doctor that you can go to with a workplace injury in the future, so before you even have a bad experience it is important to establish a personal doctor. If you do not have a personal doctor, it is possible that you might have to go to the employer’s doctor of choice in the event of a workplace injury, and this can seriously weaken your chance at recovery in a worker’s compensation claim. You can establish a personal doctor in a couple ways.
- First, you could have a check-up with a doctor and tell the doctor that you would like that doctor to be your personal doctor.
- Second, you can claim a family doctor, such as the doctor your child goes to when sick or for checkups, as your personal doctor. It does not matter that this doctor is likely a pediatrician; that doctor can refer you later to another more appropriate doctor in the event of a future workplace injury.
- Immediately draw attention to any mistreatment you experience. As soon as you experience mistreatment, alert others, especially when those people are required to provide you with a workplace free of discrimination and harassment. Even if you do not feel comfortable speaking formally with management—maybe because it is the management that is mistreating you —-it is important to alert coworkers or outside people to build up a group of people who can verify any future complaint you might make about your mistreatment.
- Immediately document any mistreatment you experience. Whatever mistreatment you experience, it is crucial to preserve evidence of it to be able to demonstrate that mistreatment later. There are many ways to document mistreatment. While reading the following examples, keep in mind that your safety is of utmost concern and you should follow this advice only to the extent that you feel safe doing so:
- If someone texts you an insult, take a screenshot of the text, or at least do not delete it.
- If someone makes a discriminatory comment, you should text, email, or write a letter complaining about the comment with details about the comment. Ideally you would send this complaint the discriminatory comment to a supervisor or manager, if not to the person who made the comment. If you write a letter, make sure that you have a copy of the letter and make a note of when you sent the letter and to what name and
- If someone vandalizes your workspace or personal property, take a picture (or if it is substantial enough, make a police report).
- If someone hits you or hurts you, take a picture of the bruises, cuts, or marks left behind. (In the case of physical harm, it is especially important and beneficial to go to the police, who can take pictures of your injuries with high-quality cameras and official documentation of the date and nature of the injury.)
- Immediately draw attention to unsafe conditions at your workplace. As soon as you notice a hazardous condition, alert others, especially people who have the power to fix the hazard. It is important to keep a record of how you draw attention to unsafe conditions. It is best to write a text, email, or letter about the injury to a supervisor and then maintain a copy of that correspondence. Simply communicating unsafe conditions verbally is also important, as that can put a caring employer on alert to fix a condition or at least spread awareness among coworkers who can verify the danger of the situation.
- Immediately call the police about criminal conduct. While it can be intimidating to approach the police about a problem, it is sometimes the most sensible course of action, and often in these cases, it is a time-sensitive and powerful course of action. For instance, in the event of a sexual assault or physical altercation, it is extremely important to call the police immediately. As much courage as it might take to call the police, it is the best way to secure justice as a victim.
You have rights, and you deserve respect. If you would like to learn more about your rights as a worker, to receive help in taking the steps recommended here, or to receive help to report a violation of your rights, please reach out to Immigrant Legal Center (through the NILAH Hotline at 1.855.307.6730) or Heartland Workers Center (by phone at 402.933.6095 or in person at 4923 S 24th St #301, Omaha, NE 68107).
If you feel that any of your rights have been violated, JFON-NE encourages you to demand your rights and to contact an attorney and/or advocate to help explore your options.
This article was written under the Justice For Our Neighbors – Nebraska name. On January 11, 2018, the organization changed its name to Immigrant Legal Center.