Financial Times

Expatriate workers rights in the US

By Natasha Gunaratne

The United States is seen heading the field in countries where rights are provided for migrant workers including domestics, a big issue in West Asia. Comprehensive workplace rights for expatriates are available in the US, regardless of visa status, and hundreds of organizations can assist workers in filing complaints and pursuing legal claims against employers.

A recent pamphlet disseminated to worker travelling to the US, also found on the US State Department website, provides an overview of the rights including the right to be paid, the right not to be retaliated against or be discriminated against, female workers rights and workers rights to a healthy and safe workplace.

A US embassy official told the Sunday Times that this is useful information for Sri Lankans travelling to the US for work. The pamphlet includes contacts in the US to report rights violations such as the National Human Trafficking Resource Centre, a non-governmental organization and another agency run by the US Department of Justice. The pamphlet clearly states that if individuals experience problems at work after arriving in the US, they should seek help immediately.

There are warnings against believing employers who say workers have no legal rights. ‘Do not accept legal advice from your employer, contractor or recruiter. Only an attorney representing you should give you legal advice.’

The pamphlet further states that among the most serious abuses is human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery where an employer or other individual, through physical or psychological abuse, causes an individual to feel that he or she is not free to leave the situation. According to the pamphlet, recognizing an abusive employment situation is the first step toward getting help. Workers also have the right to join a union and bargain collectively.

With a few exceptions, all workers in the US have a right to form and join a union, regardless of their immigration status under federal law and employers cannot take action against them for doing so.
This means workers can join with other workers to improve wages and working conditions, attend public speeches, rallies and demonstrations as well. Workers are also entitled to leave a job if the employer is abusive. If individuals come to the US on an employed-based visa and leave the employer, the visa status will no longer be valid.

However, the pamphlet states that depending on the type of visa, workers may be able to change visa categories or employers and be able to remain in the US to legally pursue a legal claim. Workers can make a formal complaint or file a lawsuit against the employer while still employed. There are severe penalties for an employer who tries to punish workers because they pursue their rights. (NG)

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