Guest workers protest job conditions
The News Herald
September 4, 2013
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Guest workers from Jamaica said they were harassed, shortchanged and threatened with deportation if they failed to show up for work, where they were contract employees of Mister Clean Laundry and Cleaning Service.
National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) lead organizer Jacob Horwitz said the workers were recruited by Reynaldo Villanueva, owner and operator of Destin-based Mister Clean Cleaning Services.
Horwitz said Villanueva recruited the workers from Jamaica and threatened them with deportation if they did not do what they were told without complaint.
“These are workers who were charged and spent over $2,000 in recruitment fees and costs for H-2B visas and were put up in company housing and slept on the floor,” Horwitz said.
H-2B is a guest worker visa.
“Some were getting paychecks as small as zero dollars because of deductions from their paychecks,” Horwitz said. “When the workers protested, the answer was a threat stapled to their paychecks.”
They said the most recent flyer stapled to their paychecks said that any worker who didn’t show up for work would be removed from “Mister Clean Housing” and “You will be escorted to pick up your plane ticket to go back to Jamaica. You will have an ICE or Okaloosa County Sheriff Department escort.”
ICE refers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The NGA has asked the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the case.
Villanueva refused to speak at length on the issue, asking inquiries be sent to him in writing. “These are false allegations,” he said Wednesday in a brief phone interview.
Deneise Gardener, of Montego Bay, Jamaica, said she was forced to live in squalor in a two-bedroom apartment with six other people in Panama City — sometimes without utilities.
“When I came here, we were sleeping on the floor, no utilities, and when we asked about our pay, he (Villanueva) said he was going to get ICE to throw us out of the country,” Gardener said.
The NGA has charged the number of workers per apartment has gone as high as 10 and 15 people.
Gardener said she came to Florida to save enough money to help her family back in Jamaica.
“I was working as a housekeeper here at Edgewater” Beach and Golf Resort, Gardener said. “Sometimes we would get no pay at all for weeks.”
Paul Wohlford, vice president of the Resort Collection, which includes Edgewater Beach and Golf Resort, issued a statement Wednesday saying the resorts provide “ethical, quality working environment and strives to make sure employees are treated fairly.”
“We do not condone unfair labor practices of any kind and we had zero knowledge of how these employees were treated; they were contracted through Mr. Clean, a contract labor company based in Destin, Fl.”
The statement added that if the allegations are true, The Resort Collection will stop doing business with Mr. Clean.
According to complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, the guest workers were required to pay between $1,800 and $2,500 each in mandatory pre-employment expenses. NGA’s lawyer contended the practice is illegal.
The Jamaican workers were supposed to be paid between $8.50 and $9 an hour. Most of them did not get anywhere close to that, Horwitz said.
Villanueva deducted from the employees’ paychecks transportation costs, visa expenses, uniforms, criminal background checks, medical checks, housing administration fees, first and last month’s rent and workers’ compensation insurance, according to the Labor Department complaint.
“They were indentured servants,” Horwitz said. “They deducted everything from their paychecks.”
The guest worker program only allows for the worker to work for one employer. If they did not stay with the current employer, they would have to be removed for the country, Horwitz said.
“They were trapped,” Horwitz said.