The worker center helps migrants deal with pandemics and #MeToo issues

A center that began with a grant from the Catholic Human Development Campaign has become the go-to resource for essential workers during the pandemic in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to speak out about sexual harassment in the workplace.

When the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (Community Workers’ Center) opened in New Bedford in 2009, it addressed issues such as wage theft and job insecurity affecting the area’s fish industry workers.

But as the US began to shine a light on the importance of essential workers during the pandemic and openly addressing issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, which erupted with the #MeToo movement, the center has lived up to the Catholic Human Development Campaign’s mission.” Helping low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, their families and their communities.”

Holy Cross Fr. Marc Fallon, who wrote the grant that launched the center for the first time, said it was a mission that paid off to bring a community of disenfranchised workers into a community that had a voice of its own found to help their community members and developing workers. Expenditure.

When the center began, it served Central Americans who worked in local fish processing, clothing and recycling companies, many of whom were employed through temp agencies, Fallon told the Catholic News Service.

Many of the grievances were from workers who had grievances but were unwilling to speak up about workplace violations against them due to irregular immigration status.

At first, efforts focused on educating them about their rights.

“You know yourself [the workers] Maybe you’ve applied for asylum or you don’t have all your papers in order, but under state law you have those rights,” Fallon said. “So we build on education, and then of course it takes a long time to . .. the level of trust.”

In 2012, the center received tax-exempt status and began hiring from among the workers it serves.

On its website, the center says it “seeks to lift immigrant workers out of the shadows where exploitation and abuse thrive and to assist them in navigating the American legal system. We believe that a healthy community and economy should allow all people access to the benefits provided by law and that the voices of those who drive the economy should count in a truly democratic society.”

Although the center helps many Spanish-speaking migrants, it’s also organized with respect to the customs, practices, and language of the indigenous Maya communities of Central America, who make up a large portion of the working-class population, Fallon said. In many cases, Spanish is a second language.

Leaders who have emerged from the center have experienced labor unions and the Catholic Church’s ideals of social justice in their home countries and advanced the work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, he said.

As the national anti-poverty program of the US Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development says one of its core beliefs is “that those directly affected by unjust systems and structures have the best insight into how to change them “.

Funding from the program has helped migrants in the Centro Comunitario raise the voice of workers as the issues affecting them have changed.

For example, when vaccines against the coronavirus began to be given to the US population in 2021, one of the center’s migrant leaders spoke up and called for essential workers to be prioritized after local authorities began pushing other communities forward for the vaccine .

The center also helped a group of women workers find legal counsel after they became part of the #MeToo movement and came forward about sexual harassment they experienced at a shellfish packaging factory. This resulted in a $675,000 statutory settlement for the workers in 2019.

Fallon said a board selects a chief executive from among leaders emerging in the community, and the center sponsors a variety of educational workshops and weekend training sessions on workers’ rights and workplace health and safety precautions, which also included more personal spaces for workers.

“That was way before COVID,” Fallon said.

The work can be complex as it involves migrant populations, some of whom work on temporary contracts. But over time, the center has become an integral part of the community, which is now evolving into a meeting point where workers meet not only to talk about workplace issues, but also to learn English and get groceries and other needs that have developed in times of a pandemic.

Fallon attributes this to the original sentiment of the Catholic Human Development Campaign scholarship that helped open up the center and emphasized the importance of it being led by community members who value the needs of a unique culture and values .

“It was important to have a place where they feel comfortable,” he said. “Where they know how to open another.”

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