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Op-ed

The US must intervene to prevent gender discrimination of migrant workers | GUEST COMMENTARY

Hiring men — but not women — is sexist. And in most cases, it violates the law. Recently, for the second year in a row, we joined migrant worker women and their allies in demanding that the U.S. government stop businesses from discriminating against women once and for all. And last week, U.S. Department of Labor Deputy Secretary Julie Su traveled to Mexico to meet with stakeholders, including my Baltimore-based organization, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, about protecting women’s rights.

Deputy Secretary Su’s trip to Mexico couldn’t have been more timely. It focused on workers’ rights under the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA), which recently replaced NAFTA. The USMCA requires the U.S. government to enforce its labor and employment laws, including laws to eliminate workplace discrimination. Unlike other trade agreements, which prioritize business interests, the USMCA is supposed to protect and advance workers’ rights. But the U.S. government has repeatedly failed to enforce its discrimination laws, as the USMCA requires. And the results have been devastating for women.

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In 2021, my organization joined migrant worker women and a coalition of dozens of allied organizations, unions and legal scholars in filing the first-ever complaint against the United States government for failing to uphold its obligations to protect women from sex discrimination under the USMCA. For more than a year, our clients have waited for the U.S. government to respond to their urgent demands for justice.

Our clients are a group of women from Mexico who tried to get work in the United States through a work visa program called the H-2 program. In that program, internationally recruited individuals work across the United States in industries like agriculture, protein processing, hotels and forestry. But when U.S. businesses said they preferred to hire men, recruiters in Mexico blocked women, including our clients, from getting H-2 jobs. They posted job announcements for “men only” and refused to hire women. And the women who managed to get jobs in the H-2 program survived rampant sex discrimination, including violent sexual assault in the workplace.

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The U.S. government has robust evidence that sex discrimination in the H-2 program is a systemic problem. And it has the tools and the legal obligation under the USMCA to stop businesses from discriminating against women. For example, the U.S. government could refuse to issue work visas to U.S. businesses that discriminate against women. And it could prioritize investigating sex discrimination cases against women.

But the government has effectively done nothing to address sex discrimination in the H-2 program in the year since we filed our USMCA complaint. In a filing we made last week in our case under the USMCA, we shed light on new sex discrimination cases that women have survived over the past year. The women’s stories are difficult to read. Women describe sexual assault and other workplace violence that the government could have prevented if it had done its job. One woman describes surviving a supervisor’s repeated sexual harassment and assaults at work. Let’s be clear: Every single day the government drags its feet on our USMCA complaint, women like our clients needlessly suffer.

Worse still, the U.S. government has collaborated with the Mexican and Central American governments to dramatically expand the H-2 program over the past year. Instead of first addressing the severe harms that women routinely confront in the H-2 program, the U.S. government decided to expand it. And the government poured precious resources that it could have used to protect workers’ rights into partnerships that facilitate sex discrimination and other workplace abuses.

The discrimination women face in the H-2 program should concern all of us who care about gender equity and discrimination-free workplaces. In our meeting this week with Deputy Secretary Su, CDM urged the Department of Labor to immediately address the abuses in our complaint. Deputy Secretary Su promised that the administration is prioritizing advancing equity and labor justice. We hope the rest of the administration implements her promises. We need meaningful policy changes now.

True gender equity — a Biden-Harris administration priority — means that no U.S. business should deny a person access to a job because of their sex or gender identity. And no worker should ever face sexual harassment at work. U.S. businesses need to know that they will face consequences when they discriminate against women. We’ve called on Deputy Secretary Su to meet face-to-face with migrant worker women in May. They will tell her that the U.S. government has the tools to enforce discrimination laws and protect women under the USMCA. Now they need to do it.

Rachel Micah-Jones (rachel@cdmigrante.org) is executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc.


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