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MASS. APPEALS | ADVICE FOR THE NEW GOVERNOR | ROCÍO SÁENZ

Protect the rights of immigrants

IMMIGRANT AND LOW-WAGE workers living in Massachusetts are doubly challenged: They live in one of the most expensive places in the nation at a time when the national political climate both exploits immigrant workers and punishes them for seeking the American dream.

Yet immigrant workers are an important part of the workforce . As the state increasingly relies on them, so should they depend on the elected leadership to look after their rights and interests. Immigrants and low-wage workers, like everyone , need good jobs with living wages and affordable health care.

So, first, Governor-elect Deval Patrick, thank you for your willingness to support immigrant and low-wage workers throughout your campaign . Instead of attacking the immigrant communities which are now the backbone of the "new Boston," you promised to work with them to make sure that immigrants will receive the same opportunities as previous generations of newcomers .

Helping immigrants and their families achieve the American dream means more than just providing feel-good programs -- it also means being a leader in promoting employer accountability. The unfortunate reality is that left alone, many employers will not improve jobs simply because it's the right thing to do. The most effective catalyst for change and improvement occurs when workers stand up to form a union, which many New Bostonians are fighting to do. But too many employers try to deny workers their civil right to form a union, and when that happens, it is imperative that elected leadership steps in to make sure they do not succeed. As governor , it is imperative that you hold these employers accountable.

New Bostonians need tough-minded policies that protect hard-working men and women from unscrupulous employers and dangerous working conditions. Government must make sure that workers are not punished when employers act illegally or dishonestly. If a company is exploiting immigrant labor, the punishment should belong solely to those employers, not to the workers trying to support themselves and their families. As governor, please help provide protection for workers who are unfairly fired and punished when employers are caught exploiting them illegally. These men and women are simply trying to earn a living. This could be one of the most important things you do to help immigrant workers here.

Punishment for wage and hour violations must be strengthened. Too many employers feel free to not pay janitors, security officers, and window-washers for the hours they have worked. These are workforces that are largely made up of immigrants , so the impact of such violations on these communities is considerable. Making sure that employers are following state and federal laws, and ensuring that those laws are strong enough to make a difference, should be a top priority.

Reinvigorate the labor sectors of state government. Health and safety laws protecting workers must be enforced and strengthened. Concerns regarding the occupational health and safety of immigrant workers have become so prevalent that the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health felt it necessary to form its Immigrant Safe Work Initiative.

According to the coalition , in 2005, 22 immigrant workers were killed on the job in Massachusetts, making up 28 percent of total workplace deaths that year. Immigrant workers are hampered by inadequate training, language barriers, and concerns that they may be deported if they speak up about dangerous working conditions. Immigrants are working in risky industries where employers are often lax about providing adequate safety protections. Help them by strengthening oversight and enforcement.

Your campaign built a grass-roots coalition to engage citizens of Massachusetts. On the strength of that coalition, and on the power of your commitment to the right of security officers to organize, and on your commitment to fair immigration reforms and access to affordable health care, SEIU Local 615 was one of the first unions to endorse your gubernatorial candidacy. As the union moves forward, it will also be working to increase the civic participation of members and immigrant workers. The union shares your goal: To provide hope to thousands of men and women who work hard every day to make a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Rocío Sáenz is the president of Service Employees International Union Local 615 in Boston.

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