Law student fights for guest workers’ rights

May 29, 2013

Law stu­dent Stephanie Gharakhanian spent nearly three months in the spring working in Mexico City at ProDESC, a non­govern­mental orga­ni­za­tion that defends the eco­nomic, social, and cul­tural rights of under­rep­re­sented workers and com­mu­ni­ties in Mexico.

Gharakhanian, who grad­u­ated from Northeastern’s School of Law on Friday, received a fel­low­ship from the law school’s Pro­gram on Human Rights and the Global Economy to par­tic­i­pate in the experiential-​​learning oppor­tu­nity. The PHRGE fel­low­ships pro­vide law stu­dents with the oppor­tu­nity to work at partner insti­tu­tions to address eco­nomic, social, and cul­tural rights in the United States and around the world.

Through her fel­low­ship, Gharakhanian con­ducted exten­sive research on how ProDESC could apply pro­vi­sions and other aspects of U.S., Mex­ican, and inter­na­tional laws to its work focused on guest worker rights. She noted that guest workers often face unfair prac­tices from employers and recruiters, including unjust recruiting fees and hour cuts.

Before the fel­low­ship, the majority of Gharakhanian’s North­eastern edu­ca­tion focused on Amer­ican law. The shift to Mex­ican law opened up her eyes to the dif­fer­ences between the two sys­tems. For instance, legal prece­dents in Mexico are not based on case law, but rather set only after the country’s Supreme Court rules mul­tiple times on a par­tic­ular issue.

It’s a very dif­ferent way to begin con­ducting research,” she explained.

Though she speaks Spanish, reading and inter­preting law in a new lan­guage pre­sented a series of unique hur­dles. “I spent a lot of quality time with my Spanish-​​English dic­tio­nary,” she said.

Gharakhanian’s fel­low­ship builds on her human rights work on co-​​op at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Jus­tice, which was estab­lished in the after­math of Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina and sup­ports African-​​American and immi­grant workers’ rights. There, she pro­vided lit­i­ga­tion sup­port on a range of issues, one of which involved filing a fed­eral com­plaint about vio­la­tions against workers at a craw­fish farm.

The co-​​op expe­ri­ence also offered Gharakhanian an ini­tial glimpse into guest workers rights. The National Guest­worker Alliance is a project of the New Orleans’ Workers Center for Racial Injustice.

Gharakhanian’s pas­sion for social jus­tice issues blos­somed as an under­grad­uate at the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame and each of her social jus­tice expe­ri­ences since then has led directly to the next one. After earning her bachelor’s in inter­na­tional peace studies, she joined the Jesuit Vol­un­teer Corps and began vol­un­teering in El Paso, Texas, at a parish not far from the U.S.-Mexico border. Working in an envi­ron­ment fea­turing a con­ver­gence of cul­tures served as inspi­ra­tion to attend law school, she said.

There were so many times when I thought that if I were a lawyer, I’d have the knowl­edge needed to address the legal issues the people there were expe­ri­encing,” she said. “By going to law school, I knew I could be of greater ser­vice to many people like those I became very closely con­nected with in Texas.”