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For All/Para Todos — and By All/Por Todos

from the April 20, 2022 Bulletin

labor unions immigrant rights art & culture children and youth immigrant working conditions

Alejandra Domenzain has lived life both sides of the border. Born in Los Angeles, she moved to México at age two, and Spanish became her first language. Domenzain did return to California, but always spent time every summer with her huge family in México. An immigrant rights advocate for 20 years, she’s now coordinating programs at the University of California-Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program. Her readily available bilingual children’s book, For All/Para Todos, tells the story of a young immigrant girl who learns to use her voice for change.

Having Mexican immigrant parents, you’ve been drawn to helping other immigrants. What issue did you work on first?

 

In the early 2000s I started working at the Los Angeles Garment Worker Center. Most workers came to us because they were facing wage theft, not being paid minimum wage or overtime. The garment shops where they worked all operated in the “informal sector.” If workers at these tiny companies filed a claim for wage theft, let alone tried to organize a union, the company would simply close and then reopen across the street.

The employers would also threaten their undocumented employees with retaliation — everything from firing them to contacting immigration authorities — if the workers spoke out about the injustices they were facing.

 

In this type of industry, a traditional union model isn’t going to succeed. Worker centers offer one viable alternative. These centers inform workers about their rights, share options for holding employers accountable, and help workers join with others for collective action.

Photo: L.A. Garment Worker Center

You shifted shifted your prime focus to occupational health and safety. Why?

 

We’ve come a long way in addressing wage theft. No one disputes that this theft has become a well-documented problem and no one disputes that wage theft violates a fundamental right. But employers continue to treat instances of workers getting injured, sick, or even dying on the job as just one of the unavoidable costs of doing business. Even workers at times normalize health and safety violations as “part of the job.” Maybe we need a different framing. “Health theft” or “life theft”!

Immigrant workers find themselves concentrated in some of the most dangerous jobs. As farmworkers, they get exposed to pesticides, excessive heat, and wildfire smoke — and injuries from long hours doing repetitive motions and working in awkward postures. Immigrant workers in cities labor in food processing, janitorial services, and construction work. They often work as day laborers and domestics.

Employers often have immigrant workers use dangerous equipment without proper training or safeguards. The heavy workloads these workers get lead to injuries and stress and expose them to chemicals — like cleaning products — that have hazardous short- and long-term effects. Mental health hazards figure in here as well. Workplace discrimination, harassment, and violence, including sexual assault, all take their toll.

 

How do these workers learn to stand up for their rights?

r/OSHA

I see my job as, first, letting immigrant workers know they have rights — and then helping them learn how to exercise these rights and “take action. Our program uses “Popular Education” methods. We encourage participants to surface the knowledge they already have and build upon it, practicing new skills and then applying these skills to solve problems they’re facing at work. Role playing and interactive activities allow people to learn with and from each other.

 

We give workers a range of options, since they face unique situations in terms of risks and resources. As a first step, they may be willing to simply document a problem, something that involves zero risk. Next, they may go to a meeting with other workers to discuss the situation or get help from an organization. They then might be ready to talk to a manager, file a complaint with an agency, or talk to the media or public officials or shareholders. Some workers become ready to organize other workers or lead campaigns.

 

You’re also not waiting for people to become adults before they learn how to speak up. You’ve written a bilingual children’s book about immigrant rights. Why?

 

As a parent of school-aged kids and as a former teacher, I have faith in the next generation. I want children to feel needed as participants in democracy. The starting point is asking: “What do you find meaningful? What changes do you want to see?” Then, they need information and help developing the skills — like story-telling or talking about the problems with others — to make those changes a reality. Teaching how to participate actively in a healthy democracy should be like teaching basketball, with real-life demonstrations and hands-on practice. Don’t give lectures, no boring blah blah blah.

 

Children’s books need more than just more diversity in their characters. I wrote my book because we need more books that help young people question the systems, policies, and laws behind the situations individual characters face. One example: Many books talk about the immigrant experience, but not many children’s books invite kids to change the policies that affect immigrant workers and Dreamers.

 

Books can be mirrors, windows, or magnifying glasses that expand our vision in so many ways. I want children to realize that they can lead, they can make the rules, they can create a better world.

 

Are you feeling optimistic about stopping “life theft?”

 

Yes! COVID has elevated the issue of health and safety for “essential workers.” Workers — including immigrant workers — are demanding that their lives be considered just as valuable as the lives of owners and investors. They’ve shifted the narrative. Employers can no longer normalize worker deaths and injuries and act like there’s nothing they can do.

 

But we need to remember that stopping “life theft” needs to involve all of us as consumers, voters, community members — and not just workers. Anyone who buys fruit or goes to a clean office or uses electronics has a responsibility here. These workers are our relatives, our neighbors, our people. We’re all responsible for saving workers’ lives.

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