Category: Press Coverage

March 12, 2014

The world watches the US on labor abuse – op-ed

The Hill

By Jennifer J. Rosenbaum

On March 13, the United Nations Human Rights Committee will meet for a two-day review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—and our nation’s representatives will have some explaining to do.

In the run-up to the review, labor and civil rights organizations in ten countries that send migrant workers to the U.S. have joined 29 U.S.-based groups in writing to the UN committee to sound the alarm about violations of fundamental human rights of migrants when they are in the U.S. These groups are asking the UN committee to press the United States over the grim reality migrant workers here have faced for decades: employers who subject migrant workers to severe labor abuse, then use immigration enforcement as a weapon to intimidate, lock away, or deport victims and witnesses to hide the abuse.

Iconic U.S. corporations are profiting from such abuse. Case in point: in late February, the Department of Labor awarded $205,977 in back wages and liquidated damages to former student guestworkers at McDonald’s restaurants in Pennsylvania, and to the U.S. workers alongside them.

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Officials at N.C. company International Labor Management are charged with visa fraud

The Washington Post – Feb. 20, 2014

By Ken Otterbourg

VASS, N.C. — In 2008, Stanley Porter started a small company called Winterscapes LLC with a fake purpose: bringing in 150 foreign workers under the H-2B visa program to be snow makers in the mountains of North Carolina.

But some of the workers didn’t even know what a snow maker was. Once they arrived, most moved to landscaping companies that were clients of Porter’s and had not gone through the proper application process for hiring foreign workers.

Porter pleaded guilty to visa fraud and money laundering last year. But the case has now ensnared a much larger firm, In­ternational Labor Management , which for years has been a major player in the business of connecting U.S. employers with foreign workers for seasonal jobs. And federal officials say the company has been gaming the visa system for years, helping businesses skirt the law.

In a 41-count indictment filed late last month in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., federal officials accused International Labor’s founder, Craig Eury Jr., and his daughter, Sarah Farrell, of falsifying applications to obtain more worker visas than were needed and then dispensing them to companies that had not qualified to use the foreign employees.

Such temporary workers are in some ways a halfway point between the agricultural workers and the skilled tech workers who grab much of the attention in the battle over immigration reform, but they have become a critical part of many industries, including landscaping, state fairs, forest management and construction.

The government is seeking to seize from Eury at least $1.1 million that it says is tied to the alleged illegal activities. He faces a single count in the indictment and could be sent to prison for 10 years if convicted. The remaining 40 counts are against Farrell, whom the indictment accuses of coordinating most of the visa applications. Each count against her carries at least a 10-year prison sentence. Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney for North Carolina’s Middle District, declined to comment on the indictment, citing a desire not to jeopardize court proceedings.

Defense attorney Kearns Davis said his clients deny the government’s allegations. Davis said in a statement that International Labor “has assisted hundreds of businesses across the country in navigating the complex guest-worker bureaucracy and paperwork process. In an industry that is closely scrutinized and politicized, they do the right thing for employers and guest workers while carefully following the law.”

Number inflation alleged

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers several programs for guest workers. The H-2A program is for agricultural workers. The H-2B program is for seasonal nonagricultural labor and is capped at 66,000 workers. Unlike H-2A workers, employees in the H-2B program are not provided housing. About two-thirds of H-2B workers come from Mexico.

The indictment says International Labor inflated the number of H-2B visas that its clients needed and then diverted the extra workers to employers who did not have government clearance. According to the indictment, there were more than 700 visa applications in the suspect pool, and the conspiracy ran from 2006 through February 2013.

In Porter’s case, the indictment says, Farrell worked with him on the fraudulent visa applications for the snow-making workers and later for janitorial workers who were also being diverted to landscaping positions.

After pleading guilty, Porter was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $100,000. He also pleaded guilty to a count of money laundering, which the government said happened when he wrote a check for $14,000 to International Labor. He is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

In the H-2B program, employers need to demonstrate that U.S. citizens do not want the jobs for which they are seeking foreign workers. They often fulfill that obligation by working with state employment offices, running help-wanted ads in newspapers and seeing who responds. The indictment says that International Labor coached employers on how to interview U.S. citizens for these positions in such a way that their hiring was suppressed.

International Labor was started in 1994. At the time, Eury was already well known in North Carolina for his work with the North Carolina Growers Association, which bills itself as the country’s largest procurer of foreign agricultural workers. The growers group is not part of this case, but the businesses are next to each other on the outskirts of the small town of Vass, which sits near the back of the sprawling Fort Bragg military installation in the state’s Sandhills region.

Despite the indictment against Eury and Farrell, International Labor is still operating. A woman who answered the door at the firm declined to answer questions.

Abuse is called common

Criminal prosecutions for H-2B violations are rare, said Jennifer Rosenbaum, the legal director for the National Guestworker Alliance, based in New Orleans. But she said that abuse of the program is common, with employers asking for more workers than they need and requesting the workers for periods far past when there is no longer any work for them to do. Both actions inflate the size of the labor pool and reduce workers’ ability to advocate for better pay and working conditions, she said.

Being moved to different employers is common as well, Rosenbaum said. This underscores the imbalance in the ­employee-employer relationship, she said, as guest workers cannot go in search of jobs on their own. Employees in the H-2B program, unlike H-2A workers, are not provided housing, reducing an employer’s costs and the incentive to provide sufficient hours for all workers, Rosenbaum said.

“This case takes a comprehensive look at how companies are gaming the system to disadvantage U.S. and foreign workers as well as companies that play by the rules,” she said.

Craig Regelbrugge, the senior vice president for industry advocacy and research at AmericanHort, the trade group for the horticultural and landscape industry, said the vast majority of companies that use foreign workers or act as procurement agents follow the rules strictly. “But there are a few bad apples, and the bad apples hurt everybody,” he said.

The cap has not been reached since the recession that began in 2008, according to statistics from Citizenship and Immigration Services. Regelbrugge said that is because hiring was down in many of the businesses that employ seasonal workers and also because higher domestic unemployment pushed many Americans to take seasonal jobs that they might have refused in better times. This year, he said, with the economy improving, the cap is again coming into play.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/officials-at-nc-company-are-indicted-for-falsifying-visas-in-guest-worker-program/2014/02/20/f30b1a1a-9985-11e3-b931-0204122c514b_story.html

In These Times

Feb. 13, 2013

By Michelle Chen

Each year, tens of thousands of immigrant “guestworkers” come to the United States on special employer-sponsored visas to work temporary jobs in landscaping, hotel housekeeping and other low-wage sectors. But for decades, these workers have been demonized and scapegoated, accused of hurting “native” U.S. workers by driving down wages. At the same time, the immigrants themselves have spoken out about their poor wages and working conditions, and have even gone on strike and organized independent labor movements to demand the same rights and wages as that of their American counterparts. It seems the only people who like this system, in fact, are the bosses who rely on a surplus army of imported temporary labor, denied the labor protections and legal rights of citizens.

In 2011, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued major reforms to a flagship guestworker programknown as H-2B, which funnels tens of thousands of migrants annually into low-wage jobs in workplaces from Florida hotel chains to crabmeat canneries. Business groups, predictably, sued to block the regulations—but last week, an appeals court finally put their arguments to rest.

The reforms, which the DOL based upon an assessment of wage rates and labor market conditions for U.S. workers, mandate pay high enough to maintain prevailing wages in sectors that recruit guestworkers, and thus sustain current working conditions. The wage rules are part of a package of guestworker program reforms proposed by the DOL, that has long been stalled by Congress and court challenges but, with this court victory, can finally be implemented.

In Louisiana Forestry Association v. Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, business associations representing the forestry, seafood processing and hotel industries, among others, argued that the Labor Department lacked the legal authority to impose the reforms and was impinging upon employers’ control over wages.

However, Meredith Stewart, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which represented the workers’ groups that joined the Labor Department in fighting the suit in court, points out that employers supported the previous, laxer regulations that made it easy to pay substandard wages. “It really wasn’t until the Department of Labor issued a wage rule that would lead to substantial increases for workers that employers decided to challenge their authority to issue any regulations for the program,” she tells Working In These Times. The new rules, she says, simply mandate that “to the extent that employers are going to employ foreign workers, those foreign workers and U.S. workers need to be treated equally and fairly.”

In court, the Labor Department and workers’ advocates cited the agency’s legal mandate, which explicitly directs regulators to protect workers from wage suppression and displacement by unscrupulous bosses. On February 4, the Third Circuit Appeals Court unanimously agreed that the Labor Department had the authority to make the reforms, rejecting the employers’ arguments.

While the pending regulations would hardly be a comprehensive overhaul, they strengthen the meager existing H-2B protections by barring employers from paying H-2B workers so little as to undercut existing wage levels for non-visa workers who do “substantially the same work.” Essentially, the prevailing wage standard, set according to the Labor Department’s economic assessments, aims to preserve working conditions in a given sector by preventing employers from manipulating immigrants to cheapen labor costs. It also would block employers from unfairly cutting hours and from deducting transportation or equipment costs from workers’ pay. Employers would be required to disclose more information up front in the recruitment and hiring process, about job requirements and workers’ legal rights. The regulations also help shield workers from discrimination if they complain about mistreatment—a critical protection because they depend on their employer’s sponsorship for their U.S. visa authorization and are thus easily coerced into silence.

Most controversy over guestworkers stems from the popular misconception that immigrants are to blame for supposedly “stealing” jobs. In fact, migrants often work jobs that complement, rather than displace, the employment of U.S. workers. But even in the labor markets where the importation of guestworkers has resulted in declining labor conditions, the process is driven primarily by the labor abuses and rampant exploitation of employers—thus all workers, native and immigrant, documented and undocumented, have an interest in equalizing labor rights across the board, to resist attempts by corporations to divide and exploit the workforce with impunity. To that end, the grassroots labor organizing among guestworkers highlights a shared labor struggle in a system that robs U.S. and immigrant workers alike of dignity. Several labor scandals, such as the recent case of seafood processing workers in the massive supply chain of Wal-Mart, have shed light on the common practice of underpaying H-2B immigrants. In a 2012 report by the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) on abuses in guestworker programs, NGA co-founder Daniel Castellanos-Contreras recalled his experience of exploitation as an H-2B worker in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, lured to the U.S. from his native Peru on the promise of a decent hotel-industry job.

Instead of hiring [local] workers from the displaced and jobless African American community, he sent recruiters to hire us. At around $6.00 an hour, we were cheaper. As temporary workers, we were more exploitable. We were hostage to the debt in our home countries; we were terrified of deportation…

The report details various forms of mistreatment that guestworkers like Castellanos-Contreras have suffered, such as wage theft and labor trafficking. In an email to Working In These Times, Castellanos-Contreras says of the Third Circuit Court ruling, “The court has caught up with what thousands of guestworkers have been saying since Hurricane Katrina: to stop exploitation in guestworker programs, we need higher prevailing wages, and we need protections from employer retaliation to make sure that the rules of the program are enforced.”

The H-2B reforms still face legal roadblocks, however. Another, related set of H-2B rule changes has been held up by a preliminary injunction issued by a Florida court in a separate suit, brought by Bayou Lawn & Landscape Services, which might potentially lead to a conflicting ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals—one more hurdle that has so far impeded full implementation. Outside the courts, conservative lawmakers stalled the implementation of the wage rules in 2012 by voting to block the required funding for the Labor Department to carry out the regulations. (The block was lifted in the 2014 budget legislation, which should clear the way for the new standards, according to the SPLC.) Meanwhile, tepid attempts in Congress to pass more comprehensive overhauls of both guestworker programs and the entire immigration system have foundered amid political gridlock.

Stewart says that, despite the incremental legal victories, “There’s still a long way to go to making these programs even remotely functional, from a worker advocates’ standpoint.”

On top of their demand for stronger wage standards, the fight will continue for more safeguards against abuses like fraud in the labor recruitment process, as well as protections for their right to organize. And progressive advocates for immigrant laborers ultimately want to move away from the precarious temporary labor of the current visa system–and toward an equitable immigration policy that provides genuinely equal employment opportunities and the ability to gain full citizenship. For now, though, the court’s affirmation of their basic right to fair pay marks a modest milestone in the migrants’ long journey.

http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/16244/court_validates_guestworker_struggles_for_fair_regulations/

The Nation

Soon we’ll all be stuck with the unjust working conditions that immigrants face: contingent jobs, with lousy pay and few or no benefits.

By Saket Soni

When members of Congress come back from recess, they could put our nation’s 11.7 million undocumented immigrant workers on a path to citizenship. But if they refuse to, as they did in 2013, they’ll be pushing US workers further down the path to becoming like low-wage immigrant workers. After all, our economy is already headed in exactly that direction.

Move over, farmers, factory workers and technology “creatives”—the emblematic American workers are now low-wage immigrant day laborers and guest workers. More and more, Americans are trapped in the uncertainty and injustice that immigrant workers know all too well, whether they’re here on temporary work visas cleaning luxury condos or undocumented and scrambling for daily construction jobs. Increasingly, from an economic standpoint, office parks and store aisles in America are coming to resemble the street corners where day laborers gather and the labor camps where guest workers are trapped. We can either continue to pretend that low-wage immigrant workers are on the fringes of our economy—that their problems are theirs alone—or we can face the fact that their conditions are what we’re all moving toward, and what millions of US-born workers already face.

Immigrant workers have long experienced vulnerability and instability, and have long been treated as disposable by their employers. Today, roughly one-third of American jobs are part-time, contract or otherwise “contingent.” And the number of contingent workers in the United States is expected to grow by more than one-third over the next four years. That means more and more families are without the benefits of full-time work, such as health insurance, pensions or 401(k)s. And more of us are without the employment certainty that leads to economic stability at home—and to the consumer spending that drives the economy.

In addition, while we are working longer and harder, wages are stagnant. Between 2000 and 2011, the US economy grew by more than 18 percent, while the median income for working families declined by 12.4 percent. Once upon a time, workers shared the economic prosperity of their employers: until 1975, wages accounted for more than 50 percent of America’s GDP. But by 2013, wages had fallen to a record low of just 43.5 percent of GDP. Overall compensation, which factors in healthcare and other benefits, has also hit bottom. Immigrants know where this downward spiral leads—just ask the Jamaican guest workers who cleaned luxury beach condos in Florida last summer and came away with paychecks for zero dollars and zero cents.

And like countless immigrant workers, more and more American workers are trapped in supply and subcontracting chains for big and powerful employers. From the late 1970s until the 2008 recession, small businesses were the prime generator of jobs in America, creating roughly 60 percent of all employment. That percentage has been swiftly declining ever since. The percentage of business loans going to small start-ups has also declined. And yet small businesses generally pay higher wages than large corporations, and a significantly higher percentage of every dollar spent at a small business stays in the community and further boosts the local economy, as opposed to dollars fleeing to often distant corporate headquarters. But when large employers dominate an industry or town, they have unchecked power to drive down wages and working conditions—or, in some cases, to try to avoid paying any wages at all. In 2012, Walmart agreed to pay $4.83 million in overdue back wages to more than 4,500 workers. And conditions don’t get much worse than those of guest workers in the Walmart supply chain who exposed captive labor at a company called CJ’s Seafood that same year, where a supervisor threatened to beat workers with a shovel to make them work faster.

The United States, which presents itself as a global beacon of opportunity and prosperity, is quickly becoming a low-wage nation. America’s immigrant workers are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine—and the coal mine extends from construction sites to supermarkets to Silicon Valley.

We as a nation will be ill equipped to address this profound shift as long as we cling to the divisive vision of an “us and them” economy. Some Americans resist immigration reform because they sense the transformation in the nature of work in our country and make immigrants the target of their justified anxiety. In fact, all US workers—immigrants and US-born, low-wage and higher-wage, temporary and full-time—are increasingly in the same boat. The sooner we realize that we all face the predicament of immigrant workers, the sooner we can work together to solve structural inequality in our economy instead of fighting over the crumbs.

 

Jamaican Guestworkers Protest Alleged Abuse from Panhandle Employer
WMBB

Addie Hampton
September 4, 2013

WMBB News 13 – The Panhandle’s News Leader

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.


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