by Michelle Chen
by Michelle Chen
October 12, 2015
We Can Move Mountains
by Shellion Parris
When I was a guestworker in Florida receiving $0 paychecks after working all week and hearing constant threats from my boss, I never dreamed that one day I would join a White House summit on Worker Voice and shake President Obama’s hand. The President held the summit because he believes workers need to be able to raise their voices for all of America to succeed. I came to add my own voice and the voices of one million other guestworkers in the United States. Because if those workers aren’t heard, the kind of workplace abuse that I suffered doesn’t just hurt guestworkers — it hurts many millions of U.S. workers too.
I was recruited to come to the United States in 2013 from a rural area in Jamaica called Trelawny. An American company called Mister Clean wanted workers to come to Florida on H-2B guestworker visas and do housekeeping work. It was hard to imagine leaving my family and my home, but when I became a mother I realized that my life was no longer about me. I decided to take the chance to make a better life for my family.
About 100 other Jamaican workers were brought with me. We had to go into debt of more than $2,000 U.S. dollars each to pay fees and travel costs. When we arrived, Mister Clean made us live in company housing. They put 13 of us in a two-bedroom apartment with no beds, no furniture at all, and made each of us pay $375 per month. Together we were paying nearly $5,000 dollars to sleep on the floor. I knew in my heart that this was unacceptable, but I had come with a goal to work for my children, so I stayed quiet.
Jamaican Guest workers here on a visa are alleging abuse from their cleaning company employers; at times, paying them nothing despite two weeks of hard labor.
News 13 attended a protest outside Edgewater Beach Resort where the National Guestworker Alliance joined in the fight for immigration reform.
The workers were crying out for employer accountability from the subcontractor, Mr. Clean Cleaning Service of Destin. and the resort companies who contracted them.
They say they were promised the American Dream, but that quickly escalated into a nightmare.
When Denise Gardener signed on to clean luxury condos in America, she believed she’d make enough money to support her family in Jamaica.
“We were promised in Jamaica that we would get overtime, make a lot of money, 40 hours per week and when we came here it was different. Nothing like that,” said Gardener.
Instead, she said she was caught in a web of debt that began with an expensive work visa to get here, cuts in hours and no discernable pay check despite hard work.
“I pay over two thousand US (dollars) to come here and sometimes when I got my paycheck, sometimes it would be two hundred dollars for a fortnight,” she said.
Hired by subcontractor Ray Villanova and Destin Cleaning Company, Mr. Clean, she said she and others were put in crowded company housing at 300 dollars a month, often leaving them with a zero on their pay stub.
“Zero dollars…I was wondering what this is, what is this for. I don’t know, but I do know this man is cruel. He’s cruel to us,” cried Gardener.
News 13 contacted Villanova via telephone on Wednesday for his side, but he could not be reached.
Protestors allege this is human trafficking; a serious issue, but is this the case?
News 13 contacted Homeland Security’s resident agent in charge who pointed us to the definition of IN-voluntary servitude. Meaning, if they can leave the job or the country, it’s not trafficking.
It doesn’t make it right, said officials with the National Guestworker Alliance. They’ve filled federal complaints against a company they said were making threats.
“Mr. Clean stapled a letter onto their paycheck saying that the Sheriff and Local Ice agents would show up at their door. Evict them from the company housing and send them back to Jamaica where they would be in debt with no hope of getting out of it,” said Jacob Horowitz of the NGA.
News 13 mentioned Edgewater Beach Resort as the location of the protest.
A press release to News 13 indicated they new nothing of the alleged abuse and if they turned out to be true, they will sever ties with Mr. Clean and any future business opportunities.
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.
Jamaican guestworkers in FL demand Edgewater Beach Resort make them whole
WHAT: Press conference by guestworkers who exposed severe labor abuse in Panama City and Destin, FL
WHO: Jamaican H-2B guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance; civil rights, labor, and community leaders
WHEN: 12 PM Wednesday, Sep. 4, 2013
WHERE: Edgewater Beach Resort, 11212 Front Beach Road, Panama City Beach, FL 32407
PANAMA CITY, FL—On Wednesday, Sep. 4, Jamaican guestworkers who exposed severe labor abuse and faced threats of deportation for speaking out will march on Edgewater Beach Resort in Panama City, one of the properties where they faced abuse. Together with civil rights, labor, and community allies, they will demand that Edgewater’s management and other property managers who profited from the abuse make the workers whole by paying them all the money they are owed.
Workers and allies will also call on U.S. Rep Steve Sutherland, in whose district the abuse took place, to meet with the workers, support their struggle, and return the donation he received from Edgewater and other property managers that profited from worker abuse.
As the New York Times wrote on Monday, guestworkers from Jamaica came forward in late August to expose the horrific conditions they endured while leased out to luxury condo managers on the Florida Panhandle. As the workers’ Department of Labor complaint details, workers faced brutal housing conditions, zero dollar checks, and written threats that they would be deported by immigration police in retaliation for speaking out against the abuse.
The Jamaican guestworkers are demanding:
By Jennifer Gordon
Sep. 2, 2013
THE words “guest workers” and “strike” are not often seen together. Yet twice this summer, members of a group of more than 150 Jamaican guest workers who clean luxury Florida hotels and condos walked off the job. The workers came to the United States in April anticipating a summer of hard work and decent earnings to send home. Instead, they encountered the black hole of labor subcontracting.
Labor-recruitment firms brought the workers from Jamaica to the Florida Panhandle. Cleaning contractors hired them and then leased them out to scrub toilets and sweep sand from floors for vacation property companies.
By the time the workers first went on strike, in June, they had much to protest. They had borrowed to pay recruitment fees of $2,000 to $2,500, counting on promises of full-time work and good housing. But in Florida, the cleaning company packed as many as 15 people into unfurnished two-bedroom apartments, for which it collected as much as $5,000 a month. Charges for rent and required extras like $70 for a T-shirt “uniform” reduced the workers’ net pay to subminimum levels, sometimes even zero, and — the final insult — paychecks repeatedly bounced. Children back home waited for money that never came.
Those problems typify the debt, fraud and coercion that plague guest-work programs in the United States. An estimated 700,000 to a million guest workers and their families enter the country each year, mostly to work in low-wage industries but also as nurses, teachers, computer programmers and the like. When guest workers are exploited, it lowers the floor for American workers, too.
H-2B visas, the class of visas held by the Jamaicans, are reserved for temporary or seasonal work for which there are not enough “able, willing, qualified and available” Americans — but of course, availability depends on the wages and working conditions on offer. Florida’s unemployment rate has been stuck at over 7 percent, so it seems unlikely that no local cleaners could be found.
Guest workers, however, offer something hiring a local worker does not: subservience. They are tied by law to the employer who sponsored their visas, which means that if they are found too “difficult” for any reason — including asking that their rights be respected — the employer can effectively deport them and blacklist them from receiving future work visas.
When the Jamaican cleaners struck the first time, protesting their stolen wages and miserable living conditions, the cleaning company stapled a notice to their paycheck stating that immigration authorities and local law enforcement would escort anyone who didn’t return the next day to the airport, to fly home.
The Jamaicans’ situation is part of a broader phenomenon of subcontracting. The structure of work has shifted since the 1980s, for workers from Manhattan office cleaners to Bangladeshi garment stitchers. The National Employment Law Project reports that 58 percent of jobs added during the recovery have been in low-wage sectors, which have high levels of contingent and subcontracted jobs. Today, almost all production in global manufacturing involves subcontracting. It is central to the structure of employment in the American construction, warehousing and agricultural industries as well.
Subcontractors compete on the price of labor. Where production can’t travel, they move workers across borders, with recruiters’ help. They also shield businesses from legal liability for the treatment of workers and from labor-organizing efforts. Three steps are essential to curbing the system’s worst abuses.
First is immigration reform that protects all workers: When guest workers can defend their rights, the millions who labor alongside them benefit as well. Immigration law must be amended to forbid employers from charging guest workers exorbitant fees directly or through recruiters and to protect those who report abuses from retaliation. The bill passed by the Senate this summer is far from perfect, but it restricts what recruiters can charge and would allow guest workers and other immigrants in a serious labor dispute to change jobs and stay in the country. In contrast, the guest-worker bill House Republicans are threatening to introduce lacks those protective features entirely and would bring in many more workers, on much worse terms.
A second necessary reform is legal responsibility along the contracting chain. If workers in a subcontracting chain are abused, the firms at the top of the chain that benefit from their labor should not be insulated from financial responsibility. An innovative California law penalizes a firm for its subcontractor’s workplace violations if the firm did not pay the subcontractor enough for it to comply with all applicable labor laws. In Britain, the quaintly named Gangmasters Licensing Authority can penalize a firm in the food sector if its labor contractor violates the law. In the Philippines, recruiters are held responsible if they place a worker into a job abroad that violates national laws on overseas employment. Such joint liability should be the standard in subcontracting arrangements.
Third is reform of labor laws. Before their second strike, on Aug. 17, the Jamaicans sought help from the National Guestworker Alliance (a nonprofit advocacy group, but not a union) and filed a complaint with the Labor Department. Other subcontracted workers are members of traditional unions, but the National Labor Relations Act restricts their ability to protest against the employer who actually holds the purse strings in a subcontracting chain, or to bargain collectively with that employer. It is time to repeal this damaging restriction.
This Labor Day, a group of courageous workers in Florida remind us that the right to fair working conditions is one that no company should be able to subcontract its way out of.
Jennifer Gordon is a professor of law at Fordham.
Meet Denise. She’s one of 150 H-2B guestworkers from Jamaica who was leased out by a Florida contractor to clean luxury condos for Republican political donors.
Denise and her fellow workers faced brutal housing conditions, zero-dollar checks, and written threats that they would be deported by immigration police in retaliation for speaking out against the abuse.
Meanwhile, the companies that were profiting from the workers’ labor donated $174,000 to prominent politicians — including some of the very Republicans blocking immigration reform.
But Denise and her fellow workers refused to be silent. They joined the NGA and came forward to expose the abuse. They won a breakthrough pledge by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) not to collude with the employer in deporting the workers.
The workers are now calling on those politicians to reject the dirty money and stand against the abuse of immigrant workers—starting with U.S. Representatives Jeff Miller (FL-1) and Steve Southerland (FL-2), in whose districts the abuse took place.
Tell the politicians: Give back the profits from guestworker abuse, and support immigration reform with strong worker politicians!
MIAMI, FL, August 28, 2013—Luxury condo managers in Florida that profited from the abuse of immigrant guestworkers donated $174,000 to prominent politicians, including some of the very Republicans blocking immigration reform, the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) revealed Wednesday. The workers are petitioning those politicians to reject the dirty money and stand against the abuse of immigrant workers—especially U.S. Representatives Jeff Miller (FL-1) and Steve Southerland (FL-2), in whose districts the abuse took place.
As Florida media reported (NPR, ABC TV), H-2B guestworkers from Jamaica came forward on Aug. 19 to expose the horrific conditions they endured while leased out to luxury condo managers on the Florida Panhandle. As the workers’ Department of Labor complaint details, workers faced brutal housing conditions, zero dollar checks, and written threats that they would be deported by immigration police in retaliation for speaking out against the abuse.
The workers cleaned condos for Silver Shells Beach Resort and Spa in Destin, FL; The Resort Collection of Panama City; Five Star Beach Properties, LLC; and Oaseas Resorts LLC, whose owners and executives have donated $174,000 to politicians in and around Florida [since 1990]. These donations went to Republicans over Democrats by a 25:1 margin, and recipients include some of the Republicans trying hardest to block comprehensive immigration reform.
Key facts on the donations:
“The same Republicans trying to block immigration reform and further criminalize immigrant workers have been taking donations from companies that profit from the abuse of immigrant workers,” said Saket Soni, NGA Executive Director. “There is no clearer sign of how urgently we need immigration reform with strong worker protections.”
“These Republicans claim to believe in the rule of law. If that’s true, they need to start by rejecting these donations, putting them in a fund to make the workers whole, and publicly denouncing the illegal abuse of immigrant workers in their own backyard,” Soni said.
The Jamaican guestworkers have launched a petition demanding:
One week into their campaign, Jamaican guestworkers fighting against labor abuse they exposed in Florida won a breakthrough pledge from federal immigration authorities not to collude with their employer in deporting them.
In an unprecedented written communication, the Miami field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) invoked the authority of two key documents that are supposed to govern how ICE operates internally: the December 2011 Memorandum of Understanding between the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor, and the June 2011 Prosecutorial Discretion Memo that specifically limits enforcement against certain victims, witnesses, and plaintiffs.
This breakthrough comes after years of community pressure on ICE not to carry through on employer threats of retaliatory deportation. In 2008, workers from India exposed how ICE was colluding with their employer to prevent them from expose labor trafficking. Since then, workers have fought for this protection from Justice@Hershey’s in 2010, to Breaking Chains at Walmart in 2012, to Jamaican Workers for Change today.
With this protection in hand, the Jamaican workers’ civil and labor rights will be secure as they fight to be made whole by their employers, and to help win immigration reform with strong worker protections. The pledge they won from ICE in Miami is also a precedent for other groups of workers to win similar pledges all around the country during civil and labor rights disputes. As the 11 million fight for comprehensive immigration reform, they’re also fighting for strong worker protections, and this pledge is one way to win them.
This victory also vindicates our fight for the POWER Act, a bill that protects immigrant whistleblowers who come forward against abuse—while also protecting the U.S. workers alongside them. We’re won inclusion of the POWER Act in the Senate immigration bill. Now we need to ensure it passes the House as well.
We look forward to working with you as the Jamaican workers fight on to win justice for themselves, and dignity for all the 11 million.
The workers, together with the Laborers International Union (LIUNA) Local 55 and the National Day Laborer Organizing Center (NDLON), put Benjamin H. Realty and companies like it on notice that workers all over the country won’t give in to intimidation, and are organizing against labor abuse.
Jamaican worker Denise Garner called on Benjamin H. to stop using immigration enforcement as a weapon against worker whistleblowers. The story of the Benjamin H. workers, like her own, shows why all workers need comprehensive immigration reform with the strong worker protections in the POWER Act.