Meeting the Challenge of Organizing Immigrant and Domestic Workers

Rabat   We got a good look at alternative strategies to meet the demand of immigrant and domestic workers in Morocco, one from an NGO project with the African Cultural Center of Morocco and the other from a feisty, political union of 18,000 members that had created a “section” for immigrant workers, domestics, and others, like street sellers.

Rose Monde and the NGO

Rose Monde and her colleagues were sharp as tacks and very articulate. They had narrowed their focus within the outlines of a European Union grant over recent years to the sub-set of domestic workers who were from sub-Saharan countries, like the Congo, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Senegal. Their estimate of the total numbers of domestics in the country and in Rabat, the capital, were huge and in the six figures, but their target was only a couple of thousand. Their main strategy had been education and training in various conferences over the years of the project. The butcher paper on the walls, looked like they had a good understanding of the issues and abuse, but might not have succeeded in forging tactics for effective response. They touted the law that would protect some workers from some of the more extreme abuses, but it still had another year to go before implementation, so it was unclear what their options might be now.

They agreed with the ODT, the Democratic Organization of Workers, and its leadership on several issues, one of them being the fact that Morocco has become less a transition stop for migrant workers moving to Europe, than a destination location now. The ODT was a younger union and touted its inclusiveness and openness to various workers. They ran what they called parallel structures with the formal workers and then the various sections of informal and immigrant workers running semi-autonomous programs within them. They were proud of being the first to welcome immigrant workers.

The legal framework for immigrants is fraught. The law allows a process of receiving registration that allows the ability to work. In a provision that only President Trump could love, they have to re-register annually and certify that no native Moroccan is interested in the job. If not, all good. If so, away you go!

With such a far-flung membership and several offices around the country, the fact that ODT opens its ranks is a smart strategy for growth in the future with limited investment or capacity in the present. Ali Lotfi, the General Secretary, of the union was proud of his international labor contacts, and mentioned having been at the SEIU convention and heard Hillary Clinton speak. He said they had also helped on the McDonalds’ campaign.

The ODT is worth watching. They are doing some interesting work, even if we were sometimes struggling to put our arms around it. The ACM project has some good staff, research, and skills, but lacks some of the innovative instincts and aggressiveness of the ODT.

Immigrants and domestic workers with a clear view of their plight are probably wishing there was one plan to build a real organization so that they could win their rights and protect them. Hopefully we’ll hear about that in the next stage.

Please enjoy David Bowie’s Suffragette City.

Thanks to KABF.

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Houston Landlords and Banks Need Pressure, Tenants and Owners Need Help

Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle
Community organizer Alain Cisneros talks to Rockport Apartment residents about the damage to their homes following Tropical Storm Harvey.

Houston  Going into Beaumont on Interstate 10, one exit after another was still closed off. Water was still standing. Trailers in a park near a small lake were still submerged with water coming up to the shoulder of the highway. Spotted along the route in one random location after another were abandoned cars and trucks, some with hoods propped up, some in the middle of the median, and others seeming to have almost made it to high ground, but then flooded.

Coming into Houston city limits on the north side of I-10, trash heaps, dumpsters, and tractor trailer rigs were now the landmarks. The giant Fiesta grocery store that was once our rendezvous point for driving into town to see the Astros play, was now a clean-out and construction zone. Motels were lined up with doors swung open and heaps of trash in their lots. Once in town, everything seemed almost normal in the city center. Talking to one storm refugee, he commented that he was flooded out and got out of his apartment after hours of bailing and waiting for the end and realizing that the water just kept rising, but once out of his place, he couldn’t see a pattern. One building would be gone and another untouched.

Much of the Houston recovery tragedy is invisible from the highway of course. I talked to Alain Cisnerous and Caesar Espinoza with F.I.E.L., which in Spanish is Familias Immigrantes y Estudiantes en La Lucha or Immigrant Families and Students in Struggle. The organization had been founded a decade ago with the original mission of helping immigrant students figure out financing to afford college, but had more recently focused on DACA and more general issues facing the immigrant community. Needless to say their plate was already overflowing their capacity.

And, then comes Harvey. They told me stories that were outrageous. In southwest Houston, a largely Hispanic area in many sections with thousands of apartment complexes, flooding had been severe. FIEL had visited with families trying to escape the water who had gone to the upper floors of their buildings for shelter and found they were nothing but shells, framed with wooden studs. Families that ended up at the convention center and elsewhere with apartments that were uninhabitable were getting texts and calls from their landlords about rent payments and late fees that would double their normal payments. In one case, a family unable to return would now owe $1200 a month because of fees and penalties on rent that had been $500. This is outrageous.

I asked whether Houston’s progressive and well-regarded mayor, Sylvester Turner, had jawboned the Apartment Association on the issue of opening up vacant units for the displaced and waiving rent and fees for abandoned units. They answered, no. Mayors and New Orleans and Houston had done so after Katrina for refugees. Why not Houston’s own people who are now under the gun? Had banks offered forbearance to mortgage payers who were underwater, literally, and waived foreclosures? Once again, they indicated nothing had been done like this to their knowledge, though ACORN had easily been able to win a number of six month extensions after Katrina. Was there a daily meeting in the Mayor’s office to coordinate the recovery, like Houston’s former mayor, Bill White, had organized? Was there a coalition of nonprofits making sure that equitable plans were produced for rebuilding and distributing relief money? No, no, not that anyone I met knew.

There is probably a lot of this happening somewhere at some level, but it definitely has not sunk down to the grassroots where FIEL and others are working. Lessons have to be learned from disasters, but I was disturbed in Houston that so many of them were so easily being forgotten.

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