From WoodburnIndependent.com, Rachel Cavanaugh, 10 Apr 2011.
WOODBURN [OR] — Farm workers, housekeepers, construction workers and other laborers told stories recently about grueling hours under the sun, 70-hour work weeks, labor sites with no bathrooms, no water or food and other deplorable work conditions.
Many cried as they spoke, at times having to pause to get through the next part. As they talked, others in the room nodded their heads in recognition, cheered them on in support or simply hung their heads and sobbed along too.
“There weren’t any bathrooms,” Rafael Ortiz told the audience through tears about his experience in a field.
“There wasn’t any water. They gave animals all those things. They treated them better than us.”
They talked about double shifts with no pay and hard, manual labor.
Ana Berta Rosa likened her former job cleaning houses to that of a “slave.” At this point, she said, she doesn’t know what to do looking back.
“There weren’t schedules to eat or to rest,” she said. “Generally I worked 60 to 70 hours per week. They never paid me for the extra hours. … I feel powerless. And this is a feeling that no one deserves. I want to call out. I want to shout, ‘Respect!’”
Most of the tales ended like Rosa’s with the workers either not getting paid, or getting paid less than was agreed upon, after weeks or months of exploitative labor.
The emotional town hall meeting, which was held March 31 at Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United (PCUN) headquarters in Woodburn, was the first of three in a series meant to educate Oregon workers about their rights.
The meetings, sponsored by the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft, are aimed mostly at undocumented workers whom the group says are often exploited by employers.
The panel that listened to the stories included top officials from the Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI), the Mexican Consulate’s office and the city of Woodburn, among others.
During the meeting, one woman in the audience pointed to abuse occurring in Woodburn specifically, noting how the city is 60 percent Latino with an “overwhelming” amount of farm workers.
She asked Mayor Kathy Figley if she would write a letter in support of Woodburn’s exploited workers.
Figley agreed, saying she was wholeheartedly in support of fair employment practices.
“Every human being on this planet is deserving of respect,” Figley said. “That means everyone is this room. … There are laws against what people have described this evening because it isn’t right and our community does not find it acceptable. People need to speak up.
“There are people in this community who care and there are people here at this table and in this room who can help you, but you need to speak up. No human being should put up with this.”
Figley pointed to certain laws in place to protect workers. She noted the consistent wages she earns at her own job.
“I was paid today and I looked, saw how many hours I had, what I got paid, what was taken out. It was right. That is what should happen to everybody and that is the law. That is what (BOLI) and others can help with. … You’re not alone. You have a lot of support.”
Some in the audience talked about their crippling fears of bosses and also of being sent back to their nations of origin. Many workers do not report abuse, theft or labor exploitation due to fears of deportation, they said.
One man pointed to the United States as being a “country of opportunities” that sometimes doesn’t feel that way.
Videos were shown of other workers telling their stories.
PCUN representative Javier Lara, who hosted the event, told the audience that huge amounts of money are stolen from workers every year in Oregon. A lot of that theft occurs in Woodburn, he said.
“It’s a tremendous problem in this community. Tremendous,” Lara said. “The great majority of restaurants here in business aren’t paying minimum wage.”
It is a problem with landscapers, cleaners, restaurant employees, drywall workers and other trades, he said.
“This is happening in America. This is happening here in Woodburn. It’s incredible. … This is a great problem.”
Carmen Gonzalez, another PCUN employee, said she empathizes with the laborers as she walked a similar path when she first came to the U.S.
She pointed to specific issues within indigenous community, which she is a part of. Many speak native dialects and don’t understand Spanish, which compounds problems when they try to seek help.
On top of that, there is a stigma about education and language many face, she said.
Gonzalez encouraged those people to raise their heads high and take pride in who they are.
“I don’t care if the people make fun of me,” she said.
“I speak my language. It is my pride to be an indigenous woman and that is the truth. The reason that we don’t have education is the … poverty that affects us.”
She pointed to the long list of issues that affect people who’ve recently arrived. It is a trade-off, she said.
“We made our way north to look for a better life but we arrived here and sometimes the fear is so great. The fear is an enormous price,” Gonzalez said. “And the shame. Why? Maybe we don’t have documents. Maybe we are blackmailed by the contractors. … Tonight, I want you to realize that it doesn’t matter if you have documents or not. You have rights.”
There are unscrupulous building contractors in Marion County, she said, who have “no heart for their workers.” People have to speak up, she said.
“Regrettably, here we give out a lot of respect but we aren’t respected in return,” Gonzalez said.
Lara said the solution to the problem is uniting together.
“The biggest thing that one can do is become part of an organization,” he said. “To become a part of an organization of workers that is going to listen to your interests and … the solution is community and organization.”
The final town hall meeting will be held April 12 in Redmond at 2161 S.E. First St. from 6 to 8 p.m.