Tackling a difficult job

Seminar covers immigrant workers' rights, concerns
Published in the Asbury Park Press 06/5/05

ASBURY PARK Various agencies met Saturday at the Bangs Avenue middle school, presenting a program to assist foreign-born workers.

"Our hope was we could provide information to (these) workers about their rights and responsibilities on work-related matters," said Linda Zucaro, chairwoman of the Monmouth County Human Relations Commission, a sponsor with the state Department of Labor and the Hispanic Affairs & Resource Center of Monmouth County.

Kathya Juarez, 32, an immigrant from Costa Rica who lives in Belmar,attended to learn about human and civil rights. But Juarez had a greater story or stories to tell.

Juarez, who has been in this country for more than two years, said she would go to house-cleaning jobs, only to be greeted by men who would expose themselves.

Another time, Juarez said, she broke her leg while working for a house-cleaning service run by another Costa Rican. Her employer ordered Juarez to take off the cast and go back to work. She complied, only to be fired and given no compensation for her at-work injury, she said.

Both unreported incidents were to be turned over to the proper authorities by the program organizers.

"I learned about a lot of rights I didn't know I have," said Juarez, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter.

Earlier, J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, director of the state Division on Civil Rights, spoke of the major problems immigrants face in the New Jersey workplace. One was sexual harassment, which appears to be increasing, Vespa-Papaleo said.

"I'm very concerned the Latino women are being abused all over the state, (but) the women are not coming forward," Vespa-Papaleo said.

Other major problems facing immigrants, according to Vespa-Papaleo, are being crime victims, not getting paid for work, workplace hazards, workplace discrimination and not realizing the right to have an interpreter when dealing with public agencies or at health care facilities, Vespa-Papaleo said. All people citizens and undocumented immigrants have rights, he said.

New immigrants are susceptible to problems because "they're new (to the country); there's language barriers with some," Vespa-Papaleo said. "Lack of communication skills make a person ripe for abuse. And people are not aware of their rights."

Because undocumented immigrants mistakenly think their citizenship status will come up, they do not report crimes, "going further underground," Vespa-Papaleo said. The only time immigration status should come up in a police investigation is if it is pertinent, he said.

Immigrants also fear government, in some cases, because they come from countries where the government was the oppressor, Vespa-Papaleo said.

"Our job is not about immigration," said Jose G. Rosenberg, enforcement supervisor for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Our job is to fight against discrimination."

"I wish there were more people here, but the fear (probably kept them from attending)," said Iraida Afanador, a supervisor in the labor department's Statewide Spanish Initiative, speaking of the approximately 20 in attendance at the city Middle School on Bangs Avenue.

The audience included Mexicans, Costa Ricans, Guatemalans, Peruvians and Puerto Ricans, she said. While Puerto Ricans are Americans, they often are discriminated against because they are thought to be immigrants or to have a language barrier, Afanador said.

Various speakers addressed the group in Spanish. Those speaking in English had their talks translated into Spanish for the group.

The program was aimed toward Hispanics because it is a large population and is a "somewhat underserved sector" in Monmouth County, Zucaro said.

Erica Grossman, 25, a Wall resident, said her fiance, Dorian Corrales, 25, a Costa Rican, attended "to see what rights he has as an immigrant." Corrales, who lives in Howell and works as a restaurant cook, has been in the country five years.

Ester Lopez, 33, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Point Pleasant, attended, seeking help regarding her husband's workplace death. Her husband truck driver Arturo Sanchez, 38 was killed in a North Jersey trucking accident in 2000. Lopez said the case, involving a lawsuit and workplace compensation matter, has not been properly resolved.

"I am happy to be in a state that has a law with enough teeth to protect anyone," said New Jersey Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Olga Vazquez-Clough, an Allenhurst resident. "I hope they will take this information and not only use it themselves, but pass it along."

Joe Sapia: (732) 308-7754; (800) 822-9770, Ext. 7754; JSapia@app.com.