MARCH 2015

A Listening Session


By Jon Melegrito

Letter from Washington


Thanks to tone-deaf politicians, Washington hasn't been on a listening mode lately. I'm referring mainly to House and Senate leaders who'd rather risk another government shutdown than listen to the American people.

ABOVE PIC: Representatives of the U.S. Dept. of Labor, Dept. of Justice, Equal Employee Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board listen to the complaints and concerns of Asian American and Pacific Islander workers, including Filipino teachers who are trafficking victims. (Photo by Jon Melegrito)

Understandably, concerned citizens are outraged that Republicans would hold up funding for the Dept. of Homeland Security as a way of punishing Obama for his executive actions on immigration. They are also frustrated at Republican inaction in passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Moreover, millions of Americans who are now benefiting from Obamacare are outraged that Republicans continue to repeal it.

The campaign season has begun. And governing is the last thing on their mind.
The White House and various federal agencies are at least listening. Through the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), these agencies are pro-actively reaching out to vulnerable communities even if they are not voters.

On Feb. 21, representatives from the Department of Justice, Department of Labor, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a listening session at a downtown union hall. The informal discussion with workers from the AAPI communities focused on how the federal government protects employment and labor rights. The representatives also explained procedures for filing complaints all forms of discrimination based on language, race, national origin, sexual orientation and religion.

As an ice-breaker, the participants were asked to stick a colored dot on six posters, each posing a question about being treated badly or differently at work because they are Asian, being denied a job because of immigration status, feeling unsafe in the workplace, getting paid fairly compared to other workers, feeling afraid to contact the government for help with a workplace issue, and knowing how to file a work-related complaint?

There were several colored dots on all the posters.

Suffer in silence

After presentations by the different agencies, the 60 or so workers who showed up were invited to raise their concerns. A Korean man noted that many Asian women are not outspoken in raising their complaints. They'd rather suffer in silence. A Chinese salon worker griped about the lengthy process in resolving complaints. And one Filipino day care worker shared how she was threatened termination if she continued talking in her native language even during her breaks.

But the most stunning revelations came from one Filipino teacher. Speaking on behalf of the 20 others who were in the audience, she could hardly speak as she tried to hold back tears, recounting how she was recruited in the Philippines three years ago, promised a teaching job in North Carolina, only to find out it didn't exist. She spoke of her $15,000 "debt bondage," money she had to pay an unscrupulous recruiter. Other teachers had to sell their house, she said, in exchange for a promise. To support herself and her family back home, she had no choice but to settle for a back-breaking job in a day care facility. Some of the teachers live in cramped quarters to save money.

The panel listened, some nodding their heads in disbelief. Jo Quiambao, leader of the advocacy group Gabriela, stood up to amplify what was described. The H-IB program, she said, is used as a way to traffic workers from the Philippines. Authorized by the US Embassy in Manila, contractors have complete control of the process, once the visas are issued to them, not individually to the workers. Quiambao wanted to know if measures are being taken by the US government to investigate recruiters who are basically engaged in a scam. She also raised the need for US agencies to build relationships with AAPI communities to encourage trafficking victims to come forward. Finally, she requested for an inter-agency review of the situation, including a uniform process of granting "T-visas" (for trafficked victims) and assistance in filing class action suits against traffickers.
Afterwards, during one-on-one follow-ups with agency reps, the teachers (who are all members of Gabriela) shared further details and personal stories.

"We're delighted they agreed to meet with us separately to further discuss our concerns," Quiambao said. "We basically want consistency in the issuance of T-visas."

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