Victory for American "Sans Papiers"

"Illegal" hotel workers in the United States win and lose

The following article reports on the victory of a group of immigrant workers whose efforts to unionise were undermined when their employer fired them and decided to "tip off" the Immigration and Nationality Service INS in America.

The workers received $72,000 in compensatory damages in a settlement between the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the operators of the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Minneapolis USA.

Though still facing deportation the "Sans Papiers" victory aids the secret work force.

The newest champions of organized labour giggle a lot. They also blush mightily at the new found attention and the prospects of travelling to Chicago soon to appear on a popular Spanish TV morning talk show broadcast worldwide.

"I think its 'Despierta America (Wake Up, America)," Reyna Albino, 24, says almost apologetically before hiding her face in her hands. They hear CNN might come calling.

Reyna and her three cousins &emdash; sisters Estela, Evertina and Rosa Albino&emdash; might seem to some like unlikely American heroines. They are undocumented workers (Sans Papiers). They don't speak English.

They clean toilets and hotel rooms at wages that would insult most American adults. They represent the 'back-of-the-house' workers &emdash;the open-secret work force of chambermaids, kitchen cooks and waterboys who for generations have sustained the USA's restaurant and hotel service industry.

On Thursday 8th January 2000, the four women and five of their former co-workers received $72,000 in compensatory damages in a settlement between the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the operators of the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Minneapolis. The hotel had fired the workers and reported them to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service shortly after the workers voted to form a union and begin contract negotiations.

The settlement is the first of its kind since agency officials pledged to give undocumented workers more protections against workplace abuses. Local employment lawyers believe the settlement will embolden steps to protect such workers nationwide while forcing employers to exert more care in who they hire.

The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) got involved after Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 17 filed a complaint accusing the hotel of retaliating against the workers for organising. The hotel, apparently with a straight face, denied this and maintained the settlement was reached because of fears that litigation would be costly and drag on for years.

Evertina said she has no doubts about the hotel's whistle-blowing motives. "When they called reunion meetings during the unionisation campaign, they were very nice to us", she recalled as she and the others sat in a room at Holy Rosary Church in South Minneapolis. "After the vote, they looked angry. They didn't even want to talk to us."

Labour laws prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who attempt to unionise. But undocumented workers, until this week, were not included.

The hotel claims that they were tipped to the undocumented workers and that the timing was merely a coincidence. But the local INS (Immigration and Nationality Service) district chief, Curtis Aljets, admitted that the hotel tipped his office to the workers and that he was not aware union bargaining activity was going on at the time of the call.

"If we had to do it all over again, we probably wouldn't do it", he told the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.

The Albino sisters come from a family of 15 brothers and sisters who live on a small farm in Guerrero, an impoverished state in Mexico. They said they came to this country five years ago for the same reasons immigrants have been coming here for centuries: a better job, a better life, the promise of America.

They said they first worked at a unionised hotel in downtown Minneapolis, where they got breaks and received an eight-hour daily shift for cleaning an average of 16 rooms each.

All except Rosa returned to Mexico, but they returned about two years ago as conditions there worsened. Rosa, who had a job at the Holiday Inn Express, got them to apply. But Estela said conditions were nowhere near those of their previous hotel employer. "We didn't get breaks, and we were let go after four or five hours", she said. "And they suspected (about our illegal status). They used to joke that "La Migra" is here. We didn't fully realize that they would report us because we wanted to have a union."

They were jailed for six days and released on bail posted by the church. A fund-raiser for the Holiday Inn Express Nine raised $13,000 to defray unemployment, housing and legal costs while they await deportation hearings, which can take months. The settlement may have put in their pockets what will be a small fortune back home, but it has no effect on their likely deportation.

They know their plight may help others in the secret work force we wink at daily.

They would do it all over again but agreed that they would trade the settlement money for the chance to remain here and work.

"We want to work hard and make a life here" Evertina said. "But if they tell us that we have to go back, then thats what we will have to do."

Source: National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR)

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