Monday, May 31, 2004

NYCOSH Awards Speeches: Omar Henriquez

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the inspiring NYCOSH Awards Ceremony that I was lucky enough to attend, and how I was too busy listening to the speeches and talking with people to act like a reporter and carefully record the greatest hits.

Luckily, several of the awardees have provided me with the text of their speeches which I will be reprinting over the next few days or weeks. The first is by SEIU Immigration Campaign coordinator Omar Henriquez. Omar, who worked for NYCOSH before moving to SEIU, was introduced by NYCOSH Director Joel Shufro, whose introduction is also excerpted below.

[From the day he started at NYCOSH], Omar became a national spokesperson on the issue of immigrant safety and health. He has testified in front of numerous Congressional Hearings – a role in which he continues – having just testified at a hearing on Wednesday held by Congressman Major Owens (who is in the audience tonight) on Workplace Fatalities. Through his extraordinary talent working with press, he has brought public attention to the issue of the health and safety for immigrant workers He has become the “go-to” person on this issue.

Omar played a key role in bringing to public attention the plight of day laborers at the World Trade Center. It was Omar who brought a New York Times reporter down to the site at which day laborers were shaping up which resulted in the newspaper stories revealing that not only were the day laborers being hired to clean up the dust in buildings surrounding Ground Zero without being provided with training or protective equipment – but they were being cheated out of their wages – which resulted in action by New York State’s Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

At the same time, Omar tirelessly met with organizations which provide services to immigrants throughout the city and state urging them to provide training to their staffs and the individuals whom they served about workplace safety and health.

Omar has gone on to work for the Service Employees International Union in the campaign for legalization of immigrant workers, because as he put it to me – it is the pre-condition for organizing immigrant workers in any fight for workplace rights. But he remains a formidable, forceful spokesperson for the rights of immigrant workers –and all workers – for safe and healthful workplaces.


As I stand here before you, humbled by this occasion, faithfully remaining committed to the causes and the work for which we are being recognized, I must say, that although this award is so very special, since its given by you, my peers, I found myself feeling awkward since it is something that I, and I venture to say, all of us that participate in the struggle for social justice, do naturally.

I could not accept this award without recognizing the people that I’ve dedicated my life to defend, the unsung everyday heroes, the ones claimed to be in the shadows, yet toil under the hot sun, the ones claimed to be invisible, though we need and see their work daily, the ones that roar for justice, but are not being heard, the ones who keep the struggle for freedom vibrant, alive and well, my brothers, my sisters, the undocumented immigrant workers that shamefully have no full rights in the United States.

I accept this award on their behalf and will eagerly and anxiously await for the time when we, as the nation of immigrants we profess to be, when we, as a country that claims freedom and justice to be its foundations, when we finally live up to our nation’s creed and recognize the terrible injustices perpetuated against undocumented immigrant workers and award them with their hard earned rights to fully participate in our society.

I am grateful to NYCOSH, for having first trusted in me and then provided me with the tools needed to do our work. And I must tell you Joel, for also letting me share the spotlight with such great and wonderful fellow honoree’s who command so much inspiration, respect and admiration for the work they do, to advance social justice.

And the spotlight I will share, but only by saying that it is an exciting and challenging time not only to be an immigrant and to be living in the United States, but also as Americans. We are facing serious and difficult times. We need to make serious and difficult decisions, but not by undermining the principles that have made America what it is today. We need to protect our nation, but at the same time we need to protect our nation’s most precious resource, our workers. We need to grow but not at the expense of trampling people’s human rights. We need to be strong but not by taking advantage of the weak. We need to secure our present, but without losing our vision for the future. We need to stand together, for divided we are sure to fail.

Lastly, I have been given an extra bonus. I am not only accompanied and supported by my labor family SEIU and you, but also by my dear and lovely family. My first born Erick Izalco as well as my youngest Max Antonio are here to feel and be proud of their immigrant heritage. My wife Alizabeth whose patience, understanding and love I need to survive is here along with a formidable woman Renee her mother and Paul, dear grandpa. It’s been a long journey for an undocumented, illegal alien for El Salvador. The Struggle continues.

We shall overcome.