OAKLAND, California – Since the Golden Arches rose above the first Southern California drive-ins, workers have labored in their shadows for the lowest legal wage a boss can pay. Other fast-food chains have mushroomed since, copying the same ideas. Pay workers the least possible. Keep them guessing from week to week how many hours they’ll get. If anyone gets upset, there are always many more people on the street, ready to step behind the counter, clean up the dirty tables or stand at the grill in the heat and smoke.
Is it a surprise that many people in those jobs came to this country to feed their hungry children or give a future to those they left behind? People will put up with a lot when they’re hungry enough. They’ll take ibuprofen to get through the shift or line up for food at the local food pantry at the end of the month, because their paychecks won’t stretch that far. All to keep that job.
These days, many of those workers have heard about strikes and work stoppages. The word is out about protests asking for $15 an hour instead of the $8 minimum. So fast-food chains are finally discovering what building service contractors and garment sweatshops have known for years. They’ve “suddenly realized” their workers are immigrants, and maybe some don’t have good immigration papers. By asking for papers and firing those who can’t come up with good ones, the restaurants imagine they’ll restore the previous willingness of workers to accept the minimum, no questions asked.
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Is that what happened at Jack in the Box in Oakland? Did the corporate office simply decide that the time had come to give workers a good scare? And did the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security help them? It wouldn’t be the first time.
In each of the past five years, ICE has audited the records of more than 2,000 employers, ordering them to fire undocumented workers. The mass firings include thousands of janitors and sewing-machine operators, as well as workers in farms, factories and meatpacking plants. Now these so-called “silent raids” have arrived at fast-food joints, just in time to scare workers as they stage more walkouts and protests.
The government says forcing bosses to fire workers is more humane than deporting them. Instead of mounting the kind of factory raids immigration authorities did a few years ago, with black-clad agents carrying machine guns, ICE now says it uses this “softer” method. It has an electronic system to find and fire the undocumented – a database called E-Verify.
ICE says it targets employers who force substandard wages or working conditions on their employees. But curing intolerable conditions by firing or deporting workers doesn’t help the workers. And in the fast-food restaurants, the conditions don’t change just because people get fired for not having good papers.
Beneath the benevolent-sounding rhetoric is a whispered subtext, as well. If “those people” without papers can’t work, they’ll leave. But no one is heading for Mexico. People stay, but instead they lose homes and pull their kids from school, while looking for work on street corners or cleaning other people’s homes.
In 1999 unions said they would try to put a stop to this. At the AFL-CIO convention, they said they’d help immigrant workers get organized to raise wages and make conditions better. Unions would campaign to repeal the law, called “employer sanctions,” that makes it a crime for someone without papers to hold a job to support his or her family. But today Congress is debating laws that would make these firings even more widespread, and criminalize people even more. These bills come from the Tea Party and mainstream Democrats, who see no problem in firing workers for not having papers.
Maybe it’s because they just don’t see or hear the workers. They don’t have to listen to parents wondering how they’ll put the next meal on the table for their kids.
But Maria Saucedo and Diana Rivera are not invisible, nor are they willing to be quiet. Both were fired recently at Jack in the Box in Oakland for not having papers. Their experiences are a reality check – the reality of the “silent raid” and its human cost. Today communities and unions are starting to see that the future could change in fast food restaurants because of the willingness of these two women, and others like them, to stand up and ask for that $15 wage. But the organizations that support them have to answer their question: Is it just, to get fired because you don’t have papers? Doesn’t everyone have the right to put food on the table for their families?
I’ve worked at Jack in the Box in Oakland for 12 years, and now they’re firing everyone. I was a cashier, but I’ve worked in prep, as a fryer, on the grill, in the seating area – every job they have there. You have to know what you’re doing. The company has a way the job should be done. They have their rules, their times. You have to learn their way of doing things.
At the end of the day I’m really tired, especially my feet, because I’m standing all day preparing or serving the food. They demand a lot and put a lot of pressure on you to work fast. They’re always telling you, “Hurry up! This is fast food. You have to work faster!” They have a stopwatch, and you have to cook the food in three minutes because they say the customers can’t wait longer than that.
If you don’t do the work fast enough, they take you off that job and put someone else on it. And they don’t give you any help. If you’re working on the grill, you’re there by yourself. They threaten that if you don’t work fast enough, they’ll cut your hours or even cut your days.
I was working 35, sometimes 39, hours a week and only taking home $500 every two weeks. So if they take away four or five hours, it has a big impact. I can’t even pay the rent and our bills with what I make. Plus, I have to send money to my daughters. Sometimes, I get to the end of the month, and I don’t have enough money to buy food. I have to decide which bills I can pay or only pay part of them. I go to the food pantry on 98th Avenue to get food then, because I don’t have enough money to buy it.
Every day on the table where we put our lunch, we have cans of Red Bull. Instead of drinking soda, lots of people drink it so they can get the strength to keep on working. People take aspirin also for the pain. There was one young man who would take Advil with caffeine with his Red Bull, as a way to keep awake while he was working at night.
I take Herbalife that also has caffeine to get the energy to keep working. I take ibuprofen and Advil for the pain, especially for the headaches I get because of the pressure and for the aches in my feet. If you’re working on the grill, in the heat, you have to take pills for the pain you get in your hands there, too.
In October the woman who’s in charge of the restaurant was up in her office, and I was working down below. She sent the supervisor to call me in and said my Social Security number didn’t match. That was on a Tuesday. She said I could work until Saturday, and that would be it. It was the same Social Security number I gave the company when I began work there 12 years ago. In all that time, they never said anything about it. And I’m not the only one – this happened to many other people, too.
They’d been shorting me on my check for weeks. My last check should have been for 40 hours, and instead they only paid me for 21. I told her that if she was firing me, she had to pay me the hours they owed. I told her, “You know my rights – you can’t fire me without paying all you owe me.” She said she didn’t have any money available for that, and I still haven’t been paid.
I don’t think it’s fair to be fired for not having papers. We all have the right to work, the right to live. We’re not robbing or hurting anyone. We’re simply working. Every dollar we put in our pocket has been truly earned the hard way. And the people they’re hiring now to take our places don’t stay, not for $8. They work two or three days and then they leave. People who can work here legally don’t have to work for $8.
I think this is happening for two reasons. To begin with, I’m making $8.25 an hour, and they’re hiring people at $8, so they’ll save a few cents this way. But I also think this is a racial profile. They’re only asking Latinos. Why just us? They just think, “For sure, if you’re Latino you’re an immigrant.” Now they company isn’t hiring any Latinos or any Asians. I’m not against white or black people working here. We all have a right to work and need to eat, to pay rent, to pay bills. But they shouldn’t fire us.
I like these demonstrations for $15 an hour. I went to some. We work much too hard for a wage of $8 an hour. Even in the airport they pay $12 for the exact same work. They’re getting rich while we’re the ones doing all the work. And look at how they treat us.
I have two daughters and a husband who can’t work because of an accident on his job. I’m the only person in our family who’s working now. My daughters are both studying in Mexico City – one studying law and the other economy. I’m paying for their school and for everything else they need. Now that I can’t work, it’s going to hurt us a lot – maybe they’ll have to suspend their studies. I haven’t thought yet about what we’re going to do about this.
Now I’m going to have to find another job, because I have to keep working. We’re not going to let this beat us. We have to continue struggling. I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t find work quickly. But I’m not thinking about going back to Mexico. I’ve been here 13 years. I’m from Mexico City, and maybe things are hard here, but they’re much harder there. You have to ask yourself, “Going back to what?”
This country was built by immigrants. Without immigrants, where would it be? They call us illegals, but what they’re doing is even more illegal.
I was off Monday and Tuesday, so I came in to work on Wednesday. I punched in and began to work, and the manager arrived and asked me why I was working. I said, “Because it’s my job.” Then he called me upstairs and asked me for my Social Security number and papers. He said, “You don’t have any job here anymore. None of you have any more work here.” When I asked why again, he explained they had orders from higher up in the company not to give us any work. He didn’t want to say anything that would get him in trouble with the people above him.
I asked for a letter that would give the reason for firing me. He said it was because we didn’t have good Social Security numbers – we didn’t have papers. I said they knew that when they hired us. In the two years I worked there, no one said anything about papers or immigration. I asked why they hadn’t asked for papers until now and were firing so many of us. He didn’t know what to say to me, so he just sat there without saying anything.
I make $8.15 -15 cents more than the beginning wage. They want to get rid of all those who make more than $8, because that’s the minimum. I think the demonstrations asking for $15 an hour are a good idea, because considering the work we do, $8 is very little. We do too much work for that. So it would be good if the wages went up. They want us to put in a lot of effort and work fast. So it’s not fair to do this to us after that. It seems very unjust to me.
They didn’t give us any notice. We just showed up, and they told us we had no more work. At least with more notice we could have been more prepared and looked for another job. But now? With no job? Can you imagine what that’s like? I’ll have to start looking for work all over again, and very quickly. I guess I’ll try to find the same kind of work in restaurants like Jack in the Box. My family is going to suffer because we won’t have my salary coming in. My family can’t survive with just the wage my husband is making.
I think it’s unjust to be fired for not having papers because we all have a right to work. We didn’t come here for any other reason. I don’t believe working is a crime. What we’re doing is something normal – we’re not hurting anyone. I come from Guerrero. There’s work there, like in the hotels in Acapulco, but it pays much less. So I’m not thinking of going back to Mexico. I’m thinking about moving forward. I have children who were born here. I think they have opportunities here.
I liked that job. When you’re used to working you really put an effort into it. So I think it was really unfair the way they fired us. Just to tell us all of a sudden, you have no more job.
Editor’s note: These photographs were taken at a picket line in front of the ICE office in San Jose, California, protesting government demands that another employer, Bon Appetit, fire its workers whose papers are in question. Bon Appetit manages the cafeterias in many of the high tech buildings in Sillicon Valley, from Stanford University to Google. All photos by David Bacon.