This post was originally published on the USC Equity Research Institute (ERI) blog and is reposted here with permission.

By Xochitl Bada and Shannon Gleeson authors of Scaling Migrant Worker Rights: How Advocates Collaborate and Contest State Power

Low-wage labor in the United States is characterized by egregiously low minimum wage standards, insufficient health and safety protections, and a civil rights regime that does little to address structural racism.  As the authors of The Gloves-off Economy: Workplace Standards at the Bottom of America’s Labor Market asserted, these realities are exacerbated by a labor standards enforcement bureaucracy that is underfunded,  siloed across jurisdictions, and relies on workers to come forward when their rights are violated. This is a challenging context for any low-wage worker, but especially so for immigrant workers who may speak limited English and struggle to navigate U.S. bureaucracies.  For the nearly 1 in 20 private sector workers who are unauthorized, the overlapping threat of an immigration enforcement bureaucracy– anchored largely in workplace surveillance mechanisms — multiplies these precarities even further.

Addressing the plight of precarious workers requires multiple institutional interventions. A strong bilateral collaboration with Mexico —the sending state with the largest population of low-wage workers— holds the potential to improve labor rights protections.

Mexican immigrants comprise a quarter of foreign-born individuals in the United States and half of the undocumented population.  Over time advocates in both the United States and Mexico have called on the Mexican government to play a larger role in ensuring that the labor rights of their nationals are protected, despite a sordid history of disregard for their emigrant workforce.  As Alexandra Délano has also chronicled in Mexico and Its Diaspora: Policies of Emigration since 1848 and From Here and There: Diaspora Policies, Integration, and Social Rights Beyond Borders, the Mexican government has taken a stronger role in advocating on several fronts, ranging from education to health, and labor protections. Nearly two decades ago, the Mexican government’s commitment to advancing the labor rights of its co-nationals was institutionalized through binational memoranda of understanding with several U.S. labor standards enforcement agencies.  These materialize the spirit of the regional labor side accords of the North American free trade agreements.

Our book, Scaling Migrant Worker Rights: How Advocates Collaborate and Contest State Powerreveals how these accords are implemented on the ground via Mexico’s consular network with help – and pressure – from local civil society advocates.  Together, this bilateral cooperation emulates the model of co-enforcement that labor scholars Matthew Amengual, Janice Fine, and Jennifer Gordon (here and here) have shown is critical to realizing the rights of vulnerable workers.  Through interviews with advocates across the U.S. and in Mexico, we reveal the many unique ways that diplomatic support helps immigrant workers access key U.S. labor protections.  Consulates have unique access to U.S. bureaucracies, have the funds and staff to do broad-reaching outreach with linguistic and cultural capital, and are a safe space for unauthorized immigrants to get help.

The institutionalization of consular support has also been a boon for efforts to hold the sending state accountable to the needs of its diaspora.   Yet, after nearly two decades of coordinated support from the Mexican Foreign Ministry, there are many cracks in the façade that have begun to appear.  Like any consular bureaucracy, there are inefficiencies and depersonalizing aspects of interacting with diplomatic staff.  Further, formal efforts to cooperate with local groups through regular events like the annual Labor Rights Week can also mask the many fronts of contestation.  In our conversations with local groups, we heard much appreciation from legal aid groups and unions, for example, who rely on the consulate to help conduct outreach and advance worker claims.  Yet, we also spoke to a broader ecosystem of worker centers, migrant-serving organizations, and organizing spaces that had a far broader vision of what the Mexican government owed its expatriate workforce.  These consular obligations also include addressing the long legacies of racism and classism at the consulate’s service windows, broadening language and cultural access to include the growing Indigenous Mexican immigrant workforce, and mirroring the same level of commitment to the needs of Mexican workers before they leave North and when they return.

By talking to groups across the country, we also learned that not all places are created equal.  The Mexican consular network’s role is crucial in places that lack local capacity and are stretched thin across dispersed Mexican immigrant communities and in rural areas. Yet, in more established destinations, where advocates had created well-oiled referral and service networks apart from the consulate, their calls for accountability were louder.  Worker centers, for example, expected more consistency and proactive advocacy, including for worker organizing and mobilization efforts.  Advocates were, however, often disappointed and collided with the consulate’s much more limited vision for their work.  A complete lack of a dedicated budget also means that advancing worker protections often come as a far second to a consul’s other legal obligations to challenging the death penalty, facilitating family reunification, corpse repatriation, and the palpable terror of immigration enforcement at the border and in the interior, among many others.

Rather than simply an inventory of the services and programming the Mexican government provides, Scaling Migrant Worker Rights provides a blueprint for how the Mexican government can contribute meaningfully to grassroots efforts for portable justice.