By Patrick Markey
Advocates for Irish immigrants and labor unions in New York have sent a letter to several federal agencies requesting they investigate the working conditions and events surrounding the death of Liam Mason, the young County Monaghan man who hanged himself in a Bronx park allegedly after suffering exploitation at the hands of a New Jersey paving subcontractor.
Brian O’Dwyer, chairman of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, and Joe Jamison, director of the Irish American Labor Coalition, sent a duplicate letter last week to the commissioner of the INS, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, and the U.S. Department of Labor, urging them to investigate the allegations of exploitation.
“We urge you to take immediate action to investigate these allegations and take appropriate action to rectify the violations seeking both civil and criminal penalties against those who have caused the tragic death of this young man,” the letter states.
Mason, who was 23, was found hanged two weeks ago in Van Cortlandt Park after friends said he was left almost penniless by a subcontractor in Perth Amboy, NJ. That sub-contractor was also Irish and had now returned to Ireland, they said.
Friends of the dead man said he had been promised $600 to $1,000 a week to work on a New Jersey paving and cementing project by a man who recruited him in Ireland four months ago. The subcontractor said he would provide airfare to the U.S. and accommodation. But reality proved far harsher. Mason worked 14 hours a day and was paid only a fraction of the money he was promised, friends said.
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After he and several other men were left abandoned without cash in their New Jersey motel, Mason stayed with friends from Monaghan in Yonkers, New York. But his desperation got the better of him. After a final failed attempt to get a flight home to Ireland, he returned from the airport to the Bronx, where he was found hanged from a tree branch two days later. It was the atrocious working conditions for virtually no money that drove Mason to take his own life, the friends said.
“If everything that has been reported is true, then there is a real possibility that there could be violations of the civil and criminal laws of the United States,” O’Dwyer said about the letter.
None of the three federal organizations had responded to telephone inquiries about the letters by press time.
O’Dwyer said those responsible for bringing Mason over to the United States and for employing him could have broken federal laws governing the prevailing wages for road projects. In addition, like the recent cases of the Chinese illegals shipped here or the deaf-Mexican smuggling ring in Queens, those employers could have also broken laws which concern illegally inducing people to break INS regulations.
“Without prejudging it, the facts seem to show a need for a much more thorough investigation,” O’Dwyer said. He plans to meet with representatives from the Department of Labor on Friday, he said.
Last week in Irish American newspapers, the Irish American Labor Coalition took out a half-page advertisement encouraging immigrants to join labor unions to protect themselves from similar exploitation.
Joseph Jamison, director of the coalition who also signed the letters, said that there is an assumption that undocumented workers have no access to the unions. While social services, such as immigration centers, provide excellent support, unions are another way for illegal workers to protect themselves from such exploitation, he said.
“There is a fear, an assumption that you have no rights. We’re fighting against that assumption,” he said.
The Mason case, Jamison said, pointed not only to the tragedy of an Irish immigrant, but also highlighted the question of labor laws and what new immigrant groups can do to organize themselves.