Annual Labor Week enlightens workers on rights

As the population of individuals of Latino descent continues to grow in the United States – the 2010 census estimates that 15 percent of the U.S. work force is Latino – reports of workplace injustice have increased at Mexican consulates nationwide.

In an effort to inform Latino workers of their rights, the United States Department of Labor, in cooperation with the consulates of Mexico and Honduras and several nonprofits, civic organizations and labor rights activists, presented “Labor Rights Week 2011” Aug. 29-Sept. 2.

In New Orleans, consulate lawyers and representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) spoke about wage fairness, safe work environments, disability benefits, resolving employer disagreements and workman’s compensation if a person is hurt on the job and.

These informational events were held at the Mexican and Honduran consulates in New Orleans and at St. Jerome Church in Kenner and St. Ann Church in Metairie. Wage clinics were held at Loyola University New Orleans and in Jackson, Miss., said Belinda Flores, a protection department staff member of the Mexican consulate.

On Aug. 31, representatives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Hispanic Apostolate collaborated with the Department of Labor, the Mexican consulate and the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children at a community outreach at St. Jerome Church. 




Sexual assault addressed

During the two-hour Kenner event, Mauricio Aguilar, an advocate for the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children, spoke in Spanish about his agency’s services to help victims of sexual assault and family violence. Bilingual representatives of the Hispanic Apostolate’s Workers’ Rights Initiative and Immigration Services and a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance coordinator were on hand, and brochures were available from the Department of Labor and nonprofits. 

“The Mexican consulate approached us to see if we could help them coordinate this,” said Martin Gutierrez, Catholic Charities’ vice president of Community Services Ministry. The Hispanic Apostolate helped secure the St. Jerome Parish Center, he said, and members of the apostolate worked with the consulate to create the evening’s agenda.

“We work very closely with Catholic Charities all the time,” Flores said. “They have programs to help people who have been abused and have labor issues. They have an excellent program for human trafficking. When a Mexican citizen needs help, they contact the consulate. We have some ways to help but don’t have the programs that Catholic Charities has.”

Flores said the consulate’s job is to preserve the human rights and well-being of Mexican citizens internationally, which includes issuing visas, passports and identification. On average, 25 to 30 people a day seek help from the Mexican consulate in New Orleans either in person, by phone, fax, letter or through family members.

700,000 complaints

Since the Mexican consulate reopened in New Orleans in 2008 and started recording labor abuse, Flores said there have been 700,000 documented cases of labor abuse. But she knows there were more, especially right after Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans office handles cases in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Aguilar said it is important for the consulate and nonprofits to work together because the needs of Latinos are so varied that one agency can’t help everyone. This is especially true with the influx of Latino workers who came to New Orleans after Katrina.

“It is important for them to know their rights as workers,” the main purpose of the labor rights week, Flores said.

Vilma Lobo, the Hispanic Apostolate’s VITA site coordinator and community liaison, said this was the first time the Labor Rights Week was held in New Orleans. “We’re hoping to do this every year,” Lobo said.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion


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