Monday, January 17, 2011

English-Only Language Bans Scrutinized

Language bans at work may be a subterfuge for national origin discrimination, according to Stuart J. Ishimaru, a Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC").

While speaking at an American Bar Association meeting recently, Commissioner Ishimaru raised concerns that language bans at work may discriminate against workers based on their place of birth, native language, culture, or ancestry.

He supports close scrutiny of so-called English-only work rules. Based on the EEOC's examination of current trends in workplaces across the country, he noted that these claims may be increasing as tensions over immigration debates continue to escalate.

Discrimination based on a person's accent also is considered by the EEOC as a "hot topic" nationally. At the same time, "political forces" have attempted to cut funding to the EEOC, targeting these particular language claims, according to Commissioner Ishimaru. These politics are just dirty and mean.

Commissioner Ishimaru observed the rising numbers of workers in American workplaces who speak languages other than English. Yet many employers are responding not with measures to promote inclusion and understanding, but by adopting policies that illegally seek to ban or limit languages.

Fear and prejudice too often motivate language bans at work. Those who claim that such bans and restrictions are intended to "promote harmony" and "cooperation" among employees should evaluate the negative impact these divisive and hurtful policies have on the souls of the workers, and ultimately on the companies' bottom lines.

The denigration is obvious in many work sites where the rules are implemented in demeaning and humiliating ways.

For example, in a lawsuit I handled against the Colorado Central Station Casino, the sworn deposition testimony of several workers confirmed that they were told that they could not speak Spanish on their break time, during lunch, or even to give directions to workers hired by the casino before they had learned English. These new immigrants were afraid to say a word and performed arduous physical housekeeping tasks in complete isolation and utter silence.

Get in the closet. When the bi-lingual supervisors asked how they should give instructions to these workers, management told them that if they "had" to speak Spanish they had better do it in the janitor's closet, according to the testimony of several workers.

Used their skills. In an ironic twist, the testimony revealed that the company nevertheless required bi-lingual workers to perform an additional service when the bosses needed it - to translate for Spanish-speaking customers - for no additional compensation or even a bit of gratitude.

Language bans hurt. Employers would be wise to recognize the talents and skills of their workers and help stop the fear and bigotry promoted by "us-them" language bans.

A path toward understanding. Some enlightened and proactive companies offer voluntary language classes in Spanish and English to immigrants and natives as part of their benefit plans. Some even compensate their workers for time spent in the classes! This develops their workers' skills and is a step toward creating true cooperation.

As one of my favorite law professors used to say - a word to the wise on that score should be sufficient - promote harmony through understanding and education. Silence the language bans.

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