Last week, LAF’s Immigrants and Worker’s Rights Practice group hosted the 3rd annual Modern Day American Worker Conference. This year’s event was entitled Over, Under, Through: Women Rising for Justice at Work, and centered on issues of discrimination, sexual violence, and financial exploitation in the workplace, all of which disproportionately affect women, low-wage workers, and immigrants.
Attendees, including community organizers and legal advocates from across Chicagoland and around the United States, spent two days learning about the problems that women with low incomes face in their jobs and discussing means to not only effectively advocate on behalf of individual victims, but to ensure that all workers are afforded safety and dignity in the future.
The first day of the conference featured a panel of four women, all of whom had survived discrimination or violence, and all of whom had been motivated by their experiences to speak up for members of their community suffering through similar experiences.
One member of the panel, Airsa Pineda, was assaulted by a supervisor at the restaurant where she worked. “It was hell what happened to me,” she says. But when she reported the incident to management, they refused to take it seriously. Airsa filed sexual harassment charges, and the restaurant retaliated by firing her.
Eventually, a friend of Airsa’s referred her to LAF, and she won both a U-Visa and payments for wage theft, sexual harassment, and workers compensation. But she wasn’t satisfied with just finding recourse for the wrongs against her. Ever since she was assaulted, Airsa has been speaking up for women who are enduring the same trauma she went through, and who might be justifiably afraid to stand up on their own. She founded the Women Workers Committee with the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, and has organized accountability campaigns to monitor working conditions at factories and temp agencies and prevent abuse. “I found a community. I found strength,” she says. “I am raising my voice, but I can’t do it alone.”
Day two of the conference included discussions focused on the intersection between immigration and worker exploitation, how advocates can utilize U and T-visas to benefit their clients, pending legislation to protect domestic and temporary workers, and pursuing justice for workers employed in the food system.
Author and journalist Bernice Yeung also delivered an inspiring address that drew from her award-winning reporting on workplace harassment and violence suffered by domestic workers, agricultural workers, and nighttime janitorial staff. She emphasized worker-led initiatives around the country that have brought these issues to light and succeeded in changing policy to benefit those who are made so vulnerable system. Near the end of her remarks, Ms. Yeung gave a call to action that seemed to encapsulate this year’s conference. She reminded a room full of lawyers that “…making a rule or filing a claim is not by itself the solution. When we put women at the center of movements and help them become leaders, they will direct us to real change.”