Consular Protection

Processes of labor standards enforcement for Mexican immigrant workers
Shannon Gleeson
Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A new research project explores the intricate web of collaborations U.S.-based organizations have with Mexican consular officials to enforce the workplace rights of immigrant workers.

The project is led by Shannon Gleeson, ILR associate professor in Labor Relations, Law, and History, and Xóchitl Bada, associate professor in Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

A third of the U.S. immigrant population is comprised of individuals of Mexican origin. Most have low unionization rates, Gleeson and Bada said, and are concentrated in jobs with low pay, few benefits, high levels of workplace violation and little government oversight.

This is especially true for undocumented workers, who lack the right of legal employment and are subject to deportation, they said. Due to language and cultural barriers, and a long history of resentment from the community, labor standards enforcement agencies struggle to reach these vulnerable groups, who nonetheless are eligible for workplace protections, regardless of legal status.

As a result, according to the researchers, the Mexican consular network within the U.S. has become increasingly important as a labor advocate – combining the legitimacy and resources of a government bureaucracy with the linguistic and cultural access of a community organization.

Gleeson argues that consular representatives, while equipped with unique resources and legitimacy are constrained in their approach to defend the rights of immigrant workers. Their effectiveness depends on the maturity of local networks, and collaboration between non-governmental organizations and labor unions to increase the impact of their efforts for communities they help.

The project has received a grant from Cornell's Institute for Social Sciences to further the research. To date, the team led by Bada and Gleeson has surveyed 52 Mexican consulates in the U.S. and conducted in-depth interviews with 15 consular offices and 124 civil society groups.

The grant provides Gleeson with the opportunity to conduct and transcribe 30 additional interviews with a sample of labor unions, immigrant right organizations, worker centers and legal aid groups. The scholars are seeking additional foundation support to complete interviews with U.S. labor standards enforcement agencies working with the consulates of Mexico and other countries to implement immigrant worker protections.

The research will lay the groundwork for a broader "convening of scholars," Gleeson said, to discuss transnational labor advocacy and the role of migrant-led civil society groups to raise the profile of this research and of advocacy efforts.