Friday, July 06, 2007

Common Sense to Ban Languages?

The full Senate appropriations committee approved a fiscal year 2008 spending bill that includes $378 million for the EEOC, $50 million above the President's budget request. The committee also narrowly adopted an amendment added by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would prevent the agency from using those funds to sue companies that require employees to speak English. "The Senate has declared English our national language," said Alexander, "and requiring it in the workplace is not discrimination—it is common sense."

I'm appalled that someone in Congress is trying to tell the EEOC that they will only get certain budget money if the EEOC does not enforce Title VII's national origin protections by ignoring claims relating to "English-Only" workplace policies. Someone asked me why I consider this outrageous, and I thank them for doing so. Since he asked . . .

It's absolutely outrageous for a legislator to select one protected class, national origin, and tell the EEOC that it cannot use the judicial system to protect that class. Would it not be outrageous for our leaders to tell the EEOC that they can have an "extra" $50 million in their budget, as long as they don't enforce the Pregnancy Discrimination Act? Would it not be outrageous for the legislators to condition money for the EEOC on not bringing disability claims? Here, the legislators tell the EEOC they can only have certain budget money if they don't enforce Title VII's protections for national origin. That is outrageous!!

English-only discrimination is not about what language workers speak. It is about singling out a class of workers and harassing them because of their national origin. The harassment accompanying these policies is devastating. It's about not giving employers carte blanche to humiliate people because of their language proficiency in English, their accent, and their entire cultural heritage, especially where it has little if anything to do with their jobs.

It's about the tyranny of the majority. If the concern is job-related, fix that. If English is required to do brain surgery, fine. Limit the restriction to that specific activity (but really, if the surgical team communicates better in Spanish, pig-latin, or otherwise, come on, are you going to quibble?). Don't ban an entire language. Instead of handling the possible barriers created by diverse languages, our legislators want to let employers ban entire languages - at work, where Americans spend 85% of their time! That's outrageous!!

When employers implement an English-Only policy, it is not a nice sight. They follow workers around, monitor their conversations, split them up during lunch and breaks, humiliate them by saying "English-Only, English Only," use it as a threat to their very livelihoods. The workers live in constant fear of uttering their native language at work. Of speaking a word. Some of my clients absolutely clammed up and couldn't even speak out of fear of attack of their very essence. Other workers laugh at them. Consider them stupid. Treat them like trash. When there is a workplace English-Only policy, other workers can harass our citizens with the imprimatur of the company (and the Senate?). That's outrageous!!

How about breaking down the barriers by helping each other learn English and Spanish, and as many languages as we can. I have not met one client, not one, who is not trying to learn English. ALL of my clients, and I've handled a lot of these cases, are trying their best to learn the language in an otherwise hostile environment. They typically work 12 or more hours a day (sometimes 2 and 3 jobs), endure hideous commutes, often involving multiple public transportation stops, give their best at work, balance lives with their children and families, and often take care of their aging parents. Often they endure these conditions for a measly 6 bucks an hour. And they have to fight for their dime raise. I'm not kidding. They get a 10 cent an hour raise, sometimes after 6 months of backbreaking work. There's not a lot of time for English classes. And then some ignorant bigot gets to make fun of them at work for chatting with their friend in Spanish. That's outrageous!!

What it is about - it's about not letting the wealthy and powerful with dictate with the purse strings what aspects of laws the EEOC can enforce. It's about preserving the EEOC's enforcement discretion. It's about treating our new citizens and yes, immigrants, with dignity and respect for their mother tongue and their very humanity. It's about equal protection for our citizens, and yes, our immigrants. It's about not letting our leaders cut off communication between us by creating barriers instead of overcoming them.

Thanks to Workplace Prof Blog for pointing out the troubling development in Congress - link here:

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