Many immigrant and minority workers need to learn their legal rights

June 25, 2012 at 12:37 am

Tiffany Lane/MEDILL Fifteen-year Innerpac Inc. employee, Apolinar Mendoza, was one of many workers let go when the company reorganized more than a month ago.

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Apolinar Mendoza worked at Innerpac Inc. in Cicero for 15 years before he and more than 100 other employees were laid off more than a month ago when the business reorganized.

Some who had been with the company for decades received only a few weeks’ severance pay, he said.

“After so many years, we deserve better and we deserve more,” Mendoza said while picketing outside the downtown office of former Innerpac president Gene Marino on Tuesday.

Speaking through a translator, Mendoza said he was making $10.88 an hour when he was laid off. He had not received a raise for three years, he said, and his previous raises had been approximately 10 cents an hour.

Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, said workers like Mendoza are vital to agricultural, food and industrial businesses in the United States.

According to, foreign-born individuals made up 15.6 percent of the U.S. labor force in 2006.

Bicchieri, who has been active in workers’ organizations for more than 22 years, said that many Americans see the nation’s immigration system as not working. But in terms of providing cheap labor, he said, it is operating perfectly.

“For top corporations, it is working well,” Bicchieri said.  “It’s doing a great job of creating an underclass that is more fearful.”

Many immigrants do not assert their rights because they have little savings and are afraid of getting fired, he said.

Under Illinois law, however, even undocumented workers can demand pay for uncompensated overtime and are entitled to minimum wage.

Khaja M. Din, a partner and attorney with Din Memmen, Inc., cites another reason. Many undocumented immigrants, he said, fear that if they come out in the open, they will attract the attention of immigration authorities.

“If working in the U.S. is illegal without proper documentation,” Din said,  “why is only the immigrant being punished for breaking this law?  Why not the employer as well?”

Din said immigrants need to learn about their rights on the job.

“There has to be stepped-up efforts to educate undocumented workers about their rights,” he said.

Bicchieri suggested that low-wage employees, immigrants and minorities find an organization to help support them while they are working.

“Workers of all backgrounds,” Bicchieri said, “should realize that we have more that unites us than divides us.”