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UI centers receive $50,000 grant to aid immigrant workers

BY EMILY BUSSE | SEPTEMBER 24, 2009 7:20 AM

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After months of waiting, the UI Labor Center and the Center for Human Rights are set to receive a $50,000 grant to combat discrimination against immigrant workers across the state.

Amy Weismann, the deputy director of the UI Center of Human Rights, said officials plan to visit meatpacking and construction companies to run 30- to 60-minute workshops in multi-language settings with videos, discussion, and dramatized scenarios to help both employers and workers practice handling potential discriminatory situations.

“This is an extremely wonderful opportunity that we’ve been given … to reach out to immigrant employees and employers in the state,” Weismann said.

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the UI and a public-interest organization in Nebraska the grant after the groups applied last spring.

There are several reasons Iowa needs the grant, said Jennifer Sherer, director of the UI Labor Center. The numbers of immigrants looking to join the Iowa workforce is increasing and the state has seen incidents of discrimination and immigrant law violations in recent years, she said.

For example, Sherer said they’ve received reports from workers with employers “suddenly refusing to hire anybody with a Spanish name.” She also cited last year’s raid of a meat company in Postville where authorities arrested 400 undocumented immigrants as an example of legal violations.

“It was sort of a wake-up call to a lot of people about the level of exploitation that’s going on in some corners of Iowa,” Sherer said. “And the fact that we’re not always doing the best job we should be to enforce the laws that do exist.”

The UI centers do not plan to work with any businesses in Iowa City, but Weismann noted a large population of Iowa City residents commute to the meatpacking and construction companies.

“There are people who work [in the companies] who are part of our community, who have children go to school here, who shop here, who live here,” Weismann said. “So Iowa City, even though it doesn’t have a facility, is touched by these issues.”

Though the UI has not contacted companies yet, Weismann named local meat company West Liberty Foods as a possible participant.

Dan Waters, vice president and general counsel for West Liberty Foods, wrote in an e-mail the turkey plant would be an ideal candidate for the program because of its proximity to the campus and because a “substantial percentage of [its] workforce” consists of foreign-born employees.

Waters said officials have already implemented anti-discrimination programs of their own, but said the grant program’s education goal “makes for a more harmonious, productive workplace.”

While Sherer said the grant program is only part of an “ongoing effort that’s been going on for decades,” she said she hopes the workshops will instill a sense of empowerment in both employers and employees.

“A law is just some words on a piece of paper unless people know what their rights are and are ready to speak out,” Sherer said.


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