Former crawfish processor speaks out against ‘blacklisting’ in guest worker visa program
New Orleans Times-Picayune
June 5, 2014
By Benjamin Alexander-Bloch
A woman traveled from her Mexican hometown to New Orleans this week to file a National Labor Relations Board complaint accusing her former employer, Bayou Land Seafood, of ending her job in retaliation for her speaking out about low pay and poor labor conditions.
Olivia Fernanda Guzman Garfias, who filed the complaint Thursday after traveling from Sinaloa, Mexico, said she was “blacklisted,” or not invited to come back to work this season, because last year she criticized the company’s pay, housing conditions and threats of retaliatory deportation.
The company, a crawfish processor in Cecilia near Breaux Bridge, denied the allegations through spokesman Greg Beuerman. He said all workers at the company are “guaranteed a wage of $9.03 per hour during the guest worker contract period” and some make as much as $13 an hour “based on their productivity and level of skill and speed in their work.”
Guzman, 51, worked under the H-2B program, which grants low-skilled seasonal workers visas when a petitioner has established that there “are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work,” according to the federal qualifications. In addition to the seafood processing industry, the program often also fills jobs in the forestry, sugar cane, lodging and amusement industries.
Guzman, speaking through an interpreter, said she decided to file the complaint after 17 years working in Louisiana seafood processing companies because she wanted “to defend my fellow workers’ labor rights and our human rights and confront my employer about all the abuses that we have been suffering. The deplorable conditions are too many to list.”
She said now that her three children in Mexico are grown, she feels comfortable filing her complaint.
“Over the years, that has always been my biggest fear. Because if I didn’t have work, how could I support them,” Guzman said.
Guzman filed the complaint with the support from the New Orleans-based National Guestworker Alliance and other local nonprofits, which attended a protest at Lafayette Square in downtown New Orleans Thursday.
Jacob Horwitz, the lead organizer at the National Guestworker Alliance, said Bayou Land Seafood wanted to “keep workers quiet and from organizing or reporting bad conditions and needed improvements.” Guzman was targeted because she was upsetting that order, said Horwitz.
Speaking of Guzman, he said the firm “retaliated against the most outspoken leader in the NGA (National Guestworker Alliance) and prevented her from coming back and thus sending a message to the other workers to not speak out.”
Beuerman, however, denied any assertions that the firm targeted Guzman. He said “every employer has an obligation to employee people, whether domestic resident employees or guest workers, to pick and choose the individuals who they think are best, not only for the job but for working collaboratively with others on site as a team.”
Beuerman said Bayou Land Seafood employs about 45 guest workers, 10 full-time domestic residents and eight part-time resident employees.
Guzman said on Thursday that workers were paid a piece-rate wage, meaning they were paid about $2 per pound of crawfish that they peeled and that often the crawfish were extremely small and dry making it harder to peel too many an hour.
She also said that 8 to 10 foreign workers often lived together in a single trailer, and paid about $80 each a month, that many trailers didn’t have any air-conditioning or ventilation and had bugs and rodents. She added that because foreign workers often are only in town for a few months at a time, it is difficult to find alternative housing besides the processing plant’s trailers.
Beuerman said the company trailers “are clean, safe and comfortable,” and that workers can choose to live elsewhere if they like. He also said that small businesses such as Bayou Land Seafood “feel obligated morally and economically to treat their guest workers well because there is stiff competition to get good workers and workers understand that they have options.”
The National Guestworker Alliance Thursday also wrote letters to retailers Walmart, Whole Foods and Target, requesting that they meet to discuss the alliance’s newly launched “Forced Labor Prevention Accord.”
That accord asks large retailers to require that suppliers who use guest workers agree to give those employees “the security that they would continue to be employed, and brought back the following season, unless the employer can explain a just cause for firing them,” Horwitz said.
Original link: http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2014/06/former_crawfish_processor_spea.html