Category: News

The Hill op-ed

May 11, 2015

By Saket Sonivarwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphpgJDsww

What do Vietnamese refugees, prison laborers, and H-2B guestworkers have in common? More than they should.

On Wednesday, testimony before the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee revealed the dirty truth about why low-road businesses have been fighting so hard to stop the Department of Labor (DOL) from reforming the H-2B guestworker program.

The H-2B program has become notorious in recent years for case after case of severe labor exploitation—often rising to the level of forced labor—especially in the seafood processing industry.
So it was fitting that Wednesday’s hearing included testimony by Frank Randol, owner of a Louisiana seafood processing business. Randol spoke out to condemn new H-2B program rules by the DOL and Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—long-overdue reforms that provide basic labor protections for guestworkers and the more than 24 million U.S. workers alongside them in core H-2B industries.

Randol told how his company had once employed Vietnamee refugees to do his seafood processing work. More recently, he used prison laborers through a “trustee program”—though by his own testimony, the incarcerated workers found conditions so poor that they preferred to return to prison rather than continue working at Randol’s plant.

Now that Randol has come to rely on H-2B workers, he complained that he was facing a threat he suggested was as dangerous to his business as floods and hurricanes: workers standing up for their rights.

For low-road employers who are determined to shop for the cheapest, most exploitable workers possible—those least able to exercise basic labor rights—the H-2B program has been a boon. H-2B employers routinely subject their guestworkers to brutal conditions and pay far below minimum wage, and use threats of firing and blacklisting to silence worker complaints. The H-2B program binds workers to a single employer, so firing means deportation to workers’ home countries, where they face crushing program-related debts and no way to pay them back.

The DOL has been trying to institute protections against this kind of abuse since 2012. Employers, industry groups, and their Congressional backers have fought desperately to block them—even while federal courts and the General Accounting Office affirmed that the program’s flaws were driving down wages and conditions for all workers.

So what exactly is in the new rules that Randol and others find so threatening?

  • prohibitions on employer intimidation, blacklisting, or other discriminatory behavior against guestworkers who seek to enforce their rights or consult with workers’ centers or attorneys;
  • protections to prevent employers from shifting the costs of travel, visa, and recruitment to H-2B workers, which would help eliminate debt servitude;
  • stronger guarantees that unemployed U.S. workers have a chance to learn about and apply for the jobs;
  • an employer registration process that could expedite the labor certification process; and
  • stronger rules to debar employers and agents who abuse the program.

 

If these don’t sound like radical measures, it’s because they’re not. They’re commonsense, long-overdue rules that will protect millions of U.S. workers, guestworkers, and the high-road employers who are currently being undercut by businesses that profit from exploitation.

Low-road employers will always put greed over worker dignity. And business lobbyists will meet any rule or reform, however good for workers and high-road employers, with cookie-cutter complaints of overregulation.

The DOL and DHS have taken an important step against the race to the bottom that’s taken a toll on every worker in the U.S. You don’t have to listen to workers and their advocates to understand why we need these new rules. It’s just as clear when you listen to their critics.

Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/labor/241500-low-road-employers-hit-a-dead-end

On May 6, 2015, the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship held a hearing on H-2B guestworker program regulations.

Below is a statement by Jacob Horwitz, Organizing Director of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA):

6-4-14 action 4 350We applaud the new H-2B program regulations by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These new rules—one instituting a new wage methodology and one regulating the H-2B program—are long overdue, having previously been blocked by industry and Congressional backers who put greed over basic worker dignity. The new rules help protect wages and working conditions for the 24 million U.S. workers who work alongside guestworkers in core H-2B industries like seafood processing, construction, landscaping, and hospitality.

Testimony at yesterday’s hearing shows why low-road employers are opposing the rules: they are afraid of workers standing up for their basic rights. Seafood industry representative Frank Randol suggested that guestworkers’ joining the NGA and exposing forced labor was as worrying to him as floods and hurricanes. Low-road employers in the seafood industry have consistently opposed regulations that provide basic protections for workers, and have sought to employ those least able to enforce their rights. As Mr. Randol noted in his testimony, his own business turned from Vietnamese refugees to H-2B guestworkers, and most recently, to prison labor.

As in 2012, industry lobbyists are now making tired complaints of overregulation. But the evidence shows—and the Federal Courts and GAO have agreed—that the lack of adequate regulation has harmed U.S. workers and guestworkers alike. The reality is that the current system rewards employers who abuse the H-2B program as a source of cheap, exploitable workers.  Without the protections provided by these new rules, guestworkers like Olivia Guzman Garfias and Fausto Garcia Figueroa will continue to face retaliatory firing or blacklisting when they advocate for better conditions or come forward to expose abuse. Retaliation chills the ability of workers to enforce their rights, creates a race to the bottom, puts high-road employers at a competitive disadvantage, and drives down wages and conditions for all workers, including the 24 million U.S. workers who work alongside H-2B guestworkers.

The commonsense rules issued last week by the DOL and DHS provide important protections for all involved, including guestworkers, U.S. workers, and high-road employers:

  • prohibitions on employer intimidation, blacklisting, or other discriminatory behavior against guestworkers who seek to enforce their rights or consult with workers’ centers or attorneys, among other frontline advocates;
  • protections to prevent employers from shifting the costs of travel, visa, and recruitment to H-2B workers, thereby helping to prevent debt servitude;
  • stronger protections to ensure that unemployed U.S. workers have an opportunity to learn about and apply for the jobs;
  • an employer registration process valid for up to three years, which will expedite the certification process; and
  • stronger debarment provisions for employers and agents abusing the program.

These new rules are an important step in stopping the rampant forced labor and workplace abuse in the H-2B program, which the NGA has exposed on the supply chains of Walmart and other major corporations. They’re long overdue. And they should be supported by anyone who cares about the dignity of immigrant workers and the U.S. workers alongside them.

CONTACTS: Jacob Horwitz, jacob@guestworkeralliance.org, 504-452-9159

Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

Immigrants’ Greatest Fear Isn’t What You Think

indianworkers_katrina_apA federal jury recently awarded $14 million in damages to a group of courageous H-2B guestworkers from India who captured national headlines in 2008 when they exposed severe labor exploitation by a Gulf Coast ship and oil-rig builder called Signal International.

In 2015, Signal’s violations sound like something out of another era: human trafficking, forced labor, discrimination and racketeering. Their practices violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and Ku Klux Klan Act.

I first met the workers one Sunday in 2007, weeks after they arrived in the United States. They had stolen away from a labor camp on Signal’s property to attend a clandestine meeting with me in a small church in Mississippi.

They told me how agents of the company had promised them good jobs as welders and pipe-fitters, along with green cards and a better life for themselves and their families. The workers paid up to $20,000 each based on these false promises. Some took on crushing debt; others sold ancestral homes to buy an American Dream.

They arrived in an American nightmare, subject to brutal working conditions, living with twenty-four men in a trailer and facing constant threats of firing and deportation. Instead of green cards, they received temporary H-2B guestworker visas. Now they were asking me: How can we make the company keep its promises? I said: By taking collective action.

A year later, late one night in March 2008, hundreds of workers and I were huddled in a room in Mississippi, just hours before they launched their public campaign to expose Signal’s abuses. As the organizer, it was my job to prepare them.

They had much to fear. They’d soon face covert surveillance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the possibility of arrest and deportation at every step, and even threats of physical violence as they marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to hold a thirty-one-day hunger strike.

But that’s not what they feared most. To my surprise, their greatest fear was telling their families back home that they’d failed. They’d come to America, the land of opportunity, the freest place on earth, and they had nothing to show for it. In their darkest moments, it wasn’t Signal’s abuses that haunted them. It was the fear that they’d let down the ones they loved.

At first this amazed me—then I remembered I’d had exactly the same fear.

I came to the United States from India, to attend college at the University of Chicago. For a time, I thought my foothold in America was secure. Then, in 2000, I missed an immigration deadline and became undocumented. Unable to work legally, I fell behind on rent. I was evicted from my apartment. I lived on friends’ couches, and worked minimum-wage jobs alongside undocumented immigrants from around the world.

After the 9/11 attacks, the threat of deportation increased. More than once, I faced physical violence from strangers who projected onto my brown skin their own nightmares of another terrorist attack. Even so, what I feared most—more than homelessness and physical violence—was telling my family that I had failed. Here I was, in the land of opportunity. And I’d let them down.

The fear of admitting that you’ve failed to achieve the American Dream is hardly unique to immigrant workers. The reality for tens of millions of US workers today is not the climb toward prosperity they were promised, but the sense that they’re losing ground every day. That they’re one slip away from disaster. Workers in the US are working harder every yearwith less to show for it. They struggle each day with their own fear of failure, of letting down the ones they love—and with the sense that somehow it’s their own fault.

It’s not. They haven’t failed at the American Dream; the American dream has failed them. College professors are now poverty-level adjuncts. Educated millennials are now just-in-time retail staff. Seniors who should be retired have become migrant warehouse workers for Amazon. Contract attorneys with six-figure law-school debt are reviewing documents for $8 an hour.

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So how did the Signal workers overcome their greatest fear? By coming together to take collective action.

All around America, there are workers coming together to imagine an economy in which they’re truly free. They’re fighting for the new generation of rights and guarantees that would let tens of millions of US workers trade anxiety and constraint for dignity and creativity.

Those who believe in the promise of the American Dream need to remember that opportunity in America has always been won through generations of collective struggle. If we can imagine freedom in the face of fear, as the Signal workers did, then we can start to build an economy that will guarantee it.

http://www.thenation.com/article/200473/immigrants-greatest-fear-isnt-what-you-think

workermarch_350On Wednesday, February 18, 2015, a federal jury awarded $14 million in damages to five H-2B guestworkers from India who joined the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) and launched a nationwide campaign in 2008 to expose human trafficking and forced labor by Gulf Coast marine services company Signal International, together with its labor recruiters.

The following is a statement by NGA Legal Director Jennifer J. Rosenbaum:

“If any further vindication was needed, workers whose brave action exposed human trafficking to the Department of Justice, Equal Employment Opportunity CommissionU.S Congress, and the national press have now been vindicated by a federal jury as well.

“The jury found Signal and its agents guilty of a shocking list of violations: labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering, and discrimination, based on the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and Ku Klux Klan Act.

“But more shocking is the reality that thousands of H-2B guestworkers in the Gulf Coast and throughout the U.S. continue to face the same dynamics of forced labor that the Signal workers did. Guestworkers continue to be legally bound to one employer, trapped by debt from recruitment fees and costs, and subject to employer threats of firing and deportation in retaliation for organizing.

“The most extraordinary part of the Signal story is the actions the workers took. After joining the NGA, hundreds of workers escaped the Signal labor camp, reported the company to the Department of Justice, marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, testified before U.S. Congress, and held a 31-day hunger strike that burned the realities of guestworker abuse into the national consciousness.

“They also exposed that Signal had a powerful ally in trafficking the workers: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Court testimony revealed that ICE advised Signal on performing illegal private deportations to punish workers for organizing and cover up the abuse.”

 

NGA Executive Director Saket Soni said:

“When these workers escaped the Signal labor camps in 2008, many lawmakers had never even heard of guestworker programs. Since then, thousands of guestworkers, including hundreds of NGA members, have come forward to expose the coercion inherent in the H-2B and other guestworker programs. As widely reported, WalmartHershey’s, and McDonald’s have joined Signal in the shameful club of companies that have been exposed while trying to escape responsibility for severe abuse of guestworkers on their supply chains.

“As policymakers and employers enter a new round of conversations on expanding guestworker programs, we need to remember that what happened at Signal International wasn’t an exception but an extreme example of the rule.

“As long as these programs continue to tie workers to a single employer, trap them in program-related debt, and leave them subject to threats of retaliatory deportation, severe abuse of guestworkers will be an everyday American reality.”

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

Immigrant workers and families say that Governor Jindal does not speak for Louisiana

10860251306_0a3536a7d1_zNEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA, February 17, 2015—A federal district court judge in Texas yesterday blocked the implementation of President Obama’s November 20, 2014, expansion of deferred action programs for undocumented immigrants. The case the judge ruled in was brought by 26 states, including Louisiana, represented by Governor Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance, issued the following statement:

“This temporary setback is based not on law, but on the politics of a small but vocal minority of ideologues. This group is putting the politics of panic ahead of a modest action by the president that would let immigrants with deep ties to their communities and no criminal records take a modest step toward normalcy in their daily lives.”

“We are confident the president’s actions are in the country’s best interest and will withstand full legal scrutiny. We urge the Department of Justice to act swiftly to appeal the Texas judge’s decision and put implementation of these expanded deferred action programs back on track.”

“In supporting this lawsuit, Governor Jindal does not stand for the workers, families, faith communities, high-road employers, or others in the New Orleans community who value the dignity of our state’s immigrant families. Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman joined dozens of other major city law enforcement leaders in a brief against the lawsuit, stating that ‘a preliminary injunction [against Obama’s immigration action] would cause significant harms and would injure the public interest.’”

“We urge New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, together with Louisiana elected officials, businesses, and community organizations, to express their confidence in the President’s immigration action and their support of Louisiana’s immigrant families.”

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, 323-594-2347, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org

On Thursday, November 20, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a plan for administrative immigration reform that will grant work authorization and temporary legal status to up to 5 million undocumented immigrants.

The following is a statement by Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance:

url-5We applaud President Obama for getting on the right side of history. The reforms he announced tonight were possible because millions of immigrant workers raised their voices, and the president listened.

Why these reforms are needed is nowhere clearer than in New Orleans, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement has created a brutal regime of racial profiling-based community raids that have undercut basic civil and labor rights.

Still, the temporary reforms are exactly that. They are not a substitute for full citizenship in our democracy and our economy, and we will continue to fight for a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Because the 5 million people covered by the president’s reform are overwhelmingly the workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy, raising their wages and conditions will be crucial to lifting the floor for all workers in the U.S.

For years, we have exposed how employers in the South and around the U.S. use the threat of deportation as a weapon to stop workers from exposing labor abuse, and as a form of retaliation against worker organizing.

This makes it a major victory that the president’s reforms include expanded protections for victims of trafficking and other crimes who are participating in government investigations, as well as the creation of an interagency working group to “explore ways to ensure that workers can avail themselves of their labor and employment rights without fear of retaliation.” When the immigrant workers at the bottom of our economy can organize for their rights without fear of retaliation, it helps raise the floor for all workers.

At the same time, the millions of immigrants not included by the president’s reforms are at risk of becoming a permanent underclass of exploitable workers. Those workers deserve the same fundamental civil and labor rights that we all do—and we’ll keep fighting for them.

Finally, we are concerned that the U.S. will be bringing more guestworkers into the tech sector without fundamental changes to the H1-B visa program that give workers the right to organize and access basic labor rights. We will continue to be a voice for guestworkers and the U.S. workers alongside them.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

march-350WASHINGTON, July 30, 2014 — In a letter sent to the Obama administration, a broad coalition of 153 civil rights, faith-based, and labor groups urged that any executive action on immigration uphold workers’ ability to press for their rights on the job.

The letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson called for “measures to ensure that workplace retaliation and the enforcement of immigration law do not continue to interfere with workers’ ability to assert their rights on the job.” Secretary Johnson is developing specific recommendations on executive actions to address the broken immigration system at the request of President Obama.

As the letter states, the current immigration system is being abused by exploitative employers who use workers’ immigration status against them, maintaining an underground economy characterized by substandard working conditions and below-market or illegally low pay. Workers who complain about substandard or dangerous conditions, wage theft, or civil rights violations are threatened with firing and immigration-based retaliation.

“A policy change is urgently needed,” the letter to Secretary Johnson says. “We urge you to enact broad relief along with enforcement reforms to guarantee that DHS policies do not interfere with workers’ rights and that immigration enforcement and retaliation are not used by abusive employers. By acting and improving protections for workers who expose illegal workplace conditions, you will raise the standards of all this nation’s workplaces.”

Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said, “All workers, regardless of where they were born, should be able to stand up for a safe and just work environment without fearing that they will be ripped from their families by standing up for the safety of their coworkers. Unfortunately, that’s the reality many immigrant workers face today.”

“Until this issue is addressed, abusive employers will continue to game the system at the expense of good employers, and workers’ job site conditions and pay will remain artificially depressed, dragging down the economy,” Hincapié said. “President Obama has the legal authority and moral responsibility to act now.”

Added Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, “We have renewed hope that we will see substantive relief from our nation’s broken immigration system this year. But relief must come with the responsibility of ensuring that our nation’s most vulnerable workers will have their rights protected on the job. Bad employers should no longer be able to game the system at the expense of all working people.”

Rocio Saenz, executive vice president of SEIU said, “The letter is intended to call DHS’s attention to the downward impact that workplace immigration enforcement can have on wages and working conditions. Our experience is that some of the worst employers actually benefit from the current policies because those who pay the best in a given industry tend to be targeted disproportionately, which lowers wages for all workers.”

“We urge President Obama to take immediate action to protect the millions of immigrant workers currently facing labor abuse,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “The undocumented cannot be a permanent underclass of exploited workers. We need strong worker protections to end their exploitation — and to lift the floor for the tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them.”

The letter to Secretary Johnson is available at www.nilc.org/document.html?id=1116.

On June 30, 2014, President Barack Obama announced plans to take executive action on immigration reform. The below is a response by Saket Soni, Executive Director of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) and New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice:

Today President Obama said that he needed to take action to reform immigration because under the status quo, employers are gaming the system and driving down wages.

That’s exactly why administrative immigration reform has to protect workers. Every day, immigrant workers who speak out against illegal wages, health and safety violations, and workplace discrimination face illegal retaliation from employers: firing and deportation. This not only traps immigrant workers in exploitation, it drives down wages and conditions for tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can break this cycle by following the civil and labor rights recommendations that the New Orleans Workers’ Center presented to it in May. That means ensuring that DHS actions do not discourage workers from taking action to protect and enforce their own rights and the rights of their coworkers, and that immigration enforcement doesn’t undermine workers’ wages and conditions. It also means DHS must ensure protections for civil rights leaders who come forward to expose the on-the-ground realities of workplace abuse.

President Obama should also stop appeasing the far right by caving in to xenophobia and demagoguery. That strategy has failed, and his announcement today shows that he knows it — but his move to expedite the deportations of unaccompanied children threatens to continue the failure.

Instead, the President should focus on protecting the civil and labor rights of immigrant workers and families, for the sake of every worker in America.

This week, The Guardian reported that Walmart and other major retailers are selling seafood produced by Burmese migrant workers trafficked onto slave ships in Thailand.

The below statement is by Olivia Guzman, a guestworker in the U.S. seafood industry and member of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), on June 13, 2014:

Olivia-statement-350Watching the report on conditions for workers on these slave ships, I’m angry and appalled. It is clear that slavery is still alive in 2014.

As a longtime migrant worker who came from Mexico to the U.S. on H-2B visas, I know what it means to leave your home to find a way to support your family. Compared to the workers from Burma and Thailand who ended up being sold onto slave ships, my fellow guestworkers and I are privileged. At the same time, we see ourselves in them. We also arrive to a system where bosses hold us in abusive conditions by using threats. For the workers in Thailand the threats are violence and death. For us in the United States the threats are deportation and blacklisting.

I joined the NGA in 2009 because I had seen too much abuse, and I wanted to change it. I worked in seafood processing on the supply chains of Walmart and other retailers for nearly 17 years. My fellow workers and I have often been paid below the minimum wage. We live in crowded labor camps on company property under constant surveillance. We fear firing, deportation, and blacklisting all the time. In one plant supervisors even hit us to make us work faster. When workers spoke up, employers would silence them with the threat of blacklisting: locking workers out of jobs permanently by removing them from the employment list and reporting them to immigration so they would no longer be able to work in the U.S.

As a member of the NGA I met many other workers like me and began to organize. I spoke up in meetings, visited worksites, and brought grievances about the labor camp to my boss.  For that I was blacklisted this season. I knew about this risk, but I knew that if I didn’t speak up, the abuse would keep getting worse. I’ve been encouraging my co-workers here to stand up and organize, and I want to tell the migrant workers enslaved in Thailand to do the same.

Walmart and other major brands should be ashamed of profiting from this abuse, and they should work to stop it. They should take responsibility for conditions we migrant workers face on their supply chains in the U.S. and in Thailand. Walmart is a very powerful company, and if they want to stop this abuse, they can do it.

Stopping buying from a known abuser isn’t enough. Brands need to make sure their suppliers enact protections to block forced labor and threats of retaliation, which keep workers from coming forward to report abuse and exploitation.

That’s why we have launched the NGA Forced Labor Prevention Accord. We urge major retailers like Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, and others to sign the accord as a step toward avoiding this extreme abuse.

Workers around the world have shown bravery to stand up against abuse and forced labor. Big retailers need to do the same.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

Labor Rights Groups Want Big Retailers To Help Improve Guest Worker Conditions In Their Supply Chains

By Angelo Young

June 12, 2014

20140604_113638_350Olivia Fernanda Guzman Garfias has spent the past 17 years traveling back and forth between Mexico and the United States to work among the many seafood processing facilities scattered across the swampy delta of southern Louisiana.

Guzman, a 51-year-old married mother of three, says she’s witnessed deplorable working conditions throughout her years of picking meat from crayfish, crab and shrimp shells. Meanwhile, labor rights advocates — taking their cues from efforts to get companies to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s perilous textile industry — are urging major seafood buyers to put pressure on suppliers to improve their treatment of workers.

“For years I’ve seen bad working conditions, low pay, decrepit labor camps and the abusive treatment at many places I’ve worked,” Guzman told International Business Times by phone on Thursday. It wasn’t until her three children were old enough help support the family back in Mexico’s northwestern Sinaloa state that she decided it was time to do something. “I began organizing my co-workers to try to improve conditions, but the employer found out about it and he didn’t like that we were becoming united.”

Guzman is one of the 66,000 annual recipients of renewable H-2B visas that let foreign nationals work for temporary periods every year. They’re forestry workers in Idaho. They operate amusement park concession stands in the summer. Or, like Guzman, they process shellfish in the Gulf Coast. Most of them are from Mexico. All of them are working legally in the United States, with fewer rights than the citizens that often work right next to them.

With the help of legal counsel provided by the New Orleans-based Workers Center for Racial Justice, Guzman filed a federal labor complaint last week against her most recent employer, Bayou Land Seafood, located 15 miles east of Lafayette near the town of Breaux Bridge. She says the company retaliated against her efforts to organize co-workers by refusing to rehire her. Retaliatory measures against workplace organizing are a federal violation of the right for employees to meet to discuss ways to improve their working conditions.

“People are terrified to even just ask for simple things, like asking to fix a flooded bathroom. They’re afraid to speak to the employer,” said Jacob Horwitz, lead organizer for the workers center, who is spearheading a campaign to get major seafood buyers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) to do more to combat retaliatory tactics, wage theft and workplace safety violations among its suppliers.

Congress isn’t likely do enact immigration reform this year, much less pass a measure promoted by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that would extend whistleblower protections to guest workers. The measure, which is part of the stalled Senate immigration bill, would let guest workers express grievances without facing the threat of immediate deportation should their employers retaliate by firing them. At the behest of companies that rely on guest workers, Republicans last year blocked a measure the Department of Labor attempted that would have boosted protections, including adding wage guarantees similar to ones extended to agricultural guest workers.

As it is, H-2B guest workers can be held off the clock by their employers when there isn’t enough work. In some cases guest workers have received absurdly low paychecks. Guzman told IBTimes her pay has averaged in recent years about $275 a week, but during slow times the weekly pay would drop to $60. At the end of a five-month harvest, Guzman nets several hundred dollars; $1,000 in a good year. Her husband Fausto is also a guest worker at a separate company in Louisiana. Their combined guest worker income has helped the Guzmans get by back home in Mexico for the rest of the year as they planned their return to the U.S. for the next crayfish harvest. Fausto supplements their meager U.S.-earned savings back home in Mexico by taking up commerical fishing or day labor work during Louisiana’s off-season.

With political gridlock on the issue, labor rights advocates are looking to major retailers to use their purchasing clout to compel seafood suppliers to weed out labor, wage and safety abuses, including the threat of retialiation to workers like Guzman who try to recruit co-workers to demand better conditions.

Guzman asserts that Bayou Land Seafood violated wage standards by paying for meat-picking by the pound and ignoring rules that require it to pay a minimum hourly wage and overtime regardless of the amount of meat they extract. She also says she lived in communal housing with 11 other guest workers that was vermin-infested and lacking air conditioning — southern Louisiana is sweltering for much of the year.

Bayou Land Seafood did not return IBTimes’ request for comment, but a representative hired by the company to handle communications told local news provider nola.com (the New Orleans Times-Picayune) that the housing is “clean, safe and comfortable” and that “every employer has an obligation … to pick and choose the individuals who they think are best, not only for the job but for working collaboratively.”

Guzman’s complaints aren’t unique.

Last year, Harvest Time Seafood of Abbeville, Louisiana, was forced by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to pay $53,000 to four Mexican nationals, all of them women, for illegally garnishing their paychecks for the costs of recruiting them — and then threatening to fire them and report them to immigration authorities. The company paid the fine but says it was unaware of any wrongdoing in paying guest workers a piece-rate for each pound of meat they picked. Companies break the law if they do not ensure they’re paying a legal minimum hourly rate, including overtime, regardless of how many pounds of meat the workers extract every hour. Employers can also fall into legal problems for garnishing wages to recover expenses like visa-processing fees or the protective gear, such as goggles and aprons, required of guest workers to meet safety and hygiene standards.

Under the current U.S. immigration and labor law, employers can initiate deportation proceedings any time they decide to fire or lay off guest workers. This constant threat of deportation can be used to compel guest workers to tolerate harsh working conditions or violations of wage and safety standards.

As reported here in June 2012, guest workers from Mexico filed a federal complaint against Breaux Bridge-based CJ’s Seafood, a Wal-Mart supplier, for not paying overtime, locking workers inside workplace facilities, making physical threats for not working fast enough, and forcing some to work up to 24-hour shifts during peak operations.

In July 2012, the Labor Department slapped CJ’s with a $34,000 fine for safety violations, including blocking exits at the facility, and required it to pay $214,000 for wage and hour violations. Dozens of guest workers got nearly $77,000 in back pay.

Local labor rights advocates have taken a cue from recently implemented measures to compel large companies to proactively improve textile factory conditions in Bangladesh.

The National Guestworker Alliance, once of the most vocal non-profit organizations in the country advocating for the rights of H-2B visa holders, has called on three major buyers of U.S. farmed and processed seafood – Wal-Mart, Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) and Whole Foods Market Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) – to do more to purge sketchy suppliers from their supply chains.

The NGA wants these three major seafood buyers to to agree to “a binding dispute resolution process that includes employers and workers,” according to Horwitz. This would bring the three major seafood buyers into labor disputes involving their suppliers and guest workers they employ who step forward with wage, labor or safety complaints. The group is currently trying to get the three retailers to respond to requests to discuss the terms of its proposed accord. Representatives at Wal-Mart, Target and Whole Foods did not return IBTimes’ requests for comment.

The accord is similar to initiatives pushed by the International Labor Organization and other international workers’ rights groups that have led to company-funded programs like the U.S.-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and Europe’s Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh aimed at increasing workplace safety through the efforts of companies that profit from Bangladesh’s unsafe textile factories.

“We definitely looked at what they were doing to try to get companies here to do more here to improve conditions for these workers,” Horwitz said.

http://www.ibtimes.com/labor-rights-groups-want-big-retailers-help-improve-guest-worker-conditions-their-supply-1599908


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