This Valentine's Day, when buying flowers for our loved ones, we should take a minute to consider the workers that grew them. Were they paid the minimum wage? Was their workplace safe?
Sylvana Jacome is one of these workers. Her story demonstrates the desperate need to reform temporary work programs in the United States, to ensure dignity and respect for all.
Born in Ecuador, Sylvana Jacome was a famous BMX rider and agricultural engineer. However, like many people, she struggled to find work to support herself in her hometown. Her decision to leave Ecuador and travel to the United States was made even more difficult by the complete lack of information concerning the temporary work programs available to her.
¨I didn't have any idea who regulated the different types of visas or how the process functioned,¨ comments Sylvana. In this vulnerable situation, many workers are forced to have complete trust in their employers, trust which is often exploited. ¨I would've liked to have known that the Department of Labor was directly connected to my work permit, that it wasn't only the company who was managing everything. That the program actually had government backing¨.
When Sylvana finally arrived in California to work in a nursery, she was confronted with exploitative working conditions, mistreatment of the workers, limited restbreaks and inhumane living quarters. She soon discovered that to make a claim against these abuses would be an arduous process:
¨I endured a lot. My health suffered. After you make the claim, you have to somehow come up with the resources to bring it before the relevant agency. You then have to wait a long time before it's investigated, often without any resolution. I feel totally let down by the system here in the United States. It allows for irregularities that create a completely ineffective claims process¨.
Rather than dwell on her own injust experience, Sylvna is clear about the changes to the system that urgently need to be made: ¨We need a reform that obligates employers to comply with both the salary and hours of work offered to us in our contracts. There needs to be some form of workplace inspection regularly carried out by the Department of Labor and more materiales available, so workers know their rights. Finally, people need to have the resources and support to be able to make a claim against their employer.¨
She stresses that these changes require collective action: ¨I think worker exploitation is a theme that isn't talked about, but it's happening all the time, in every State, across every industry. We have to raise our voices about the rights we have, raise our voices about the laws that exist and come together to protest and put our claims forward as a group.¨