Category: Press Statements

Guestworkers Expose Blacklisting in LA Seafood Industry

Workers confront employer, file federal complaint after blacklisting

6-4-14 action 350NEW ORLEANS, LA—On Thursday, June 5, 2014, guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) launched a fight to end blacklisting by employers in the seafood industry—a weapon of coercion that silences workers and contributes to forced labor.

Workers and community allies from the Congress of Day Laborers and STAND with Dignity filed a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint against Bayou Land Seafood, which blacklisted guestworker Olivia Guzman after she joined the NGA and spoke out against sub-minimum wage pay, decrepit housing, and organized her coworkers to try to improve working conditions at Bayou Land and across the industry.

“My sister and brother-in-law won’t even talk to me now because they don’t want to be cut off,” Olivia said. “That’s why we have to fight this. If we don’t, the bosses and their recruiters will see that they can just blacklist anyone who demands their rights, and more and more abuse will happen.”

Employers and recruiters use blacklisting—refusing to rehire guestworkers and/or reporting them to immigration authorities—as a weapon of coercion against guestworkers, who depend entirely on the ability to return to the U.S. each year for regular seasonal work.

Olivia defied the threats and helped form the Seafood Worker Organizing Committee, alongside former guestworkers from Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood, which subjected guestworkers to forced labor. Olivia has also served as a guestworker on the Walmart supply chain.

“When I decided to become a leader in the NGA, I knew what I was exposing myself to, but I had seen too much abuse to stay silent,” Olivia said. “I had to fight for my rights and the rights of all workers.”

On June 4, Olivia and allies confronted her former employer at the Bayou Land Seafood plant in Cecilia, LA, but he refused to rehire her or pledge to protect future workers from blacklisting.

After filing the NLRB complaint on June 5, Olivia and her allies delivered formal requests to Walmart, Whole Foods, and Target, asking that they refuse to purchase seafood from Bayou Land Seafood until the company agrees to rehire Olivia and sign the NGA’s Forced Labor Prevention Accord, which would protect workers from blacklisting and other forms of employer coercion.

“Major retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods can end forced labor on their U.S. supply chains any time they want,” said NGA Lead Organizer Jacob Horwitz. “They set the standards for their suppliers, and they need to demand an end to blacklisting as a weapon of fear.”

In coming weeks, NGA and its members will engage with workers, allies, and consumers to encourage retailers and other seafood buyers to sign the Forced Labor Prevention Accord.

Resources:

CONTACTS:

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

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

On February 18, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor vindicated the J-1 student guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) who went on strike from McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania in March 2013. The USDOL cited the McDonald’s franchisee for minimum wage violations against 291 fast food workers, awarding them $205,977 in back wages and liquidated damages.

Below is a statement by NGA Executive Director Saket Soni:

Credit: Christine Baker | pennlive.com

Today, some of the most vulnerable workers in America—immigrant guestworkers—won a major victory not only for themselves, but for the U.S. workers alongside them. Brave student guestworkers from Argentina, Malaysia, and other countries defied threats of retaliation and went on strike to end the severe exploitation they faced at McDonald’s stores last year, including sub-minimum wage pay, unpaid overtime, and overpriced company housing. These NGA members won $205,977 in back wages and damages not only for the 178 guestworkers who worked at these McDonald’s stores, but for 113 U.S. fast food workers alongside them, including formerly incarcerated people and political refugees.

This victory comes as tens of thousands of McDonald’s workers around the U.S. are demanding a living wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. McDonald’s must meet those demands.

But this victory also shows that raising wages is not enough. As long as employers like McDonald’s can use threats of retaliation and deportation to exploit immigrant workers, the wages and conditions of the U.S. workers alongside them will never be secure. But by protecting the right to organize for the most vulnerable workers, we help raise the floor for every worker in the U.S.

President Obama stressed in his State of the Union that he’s ready to take executive action to combat income inequality. That action needs to include protections for immigrant workers who come forward to expose abuse from retaliatory deportation.

And now that the DOL has vindicated these workers, McDonald’s corporate can’t hide behind its franchisee and wash its hands of the abuse. McDonald’s must:

  1. Conduct an audit of its franchisees and reveal where else guestworkers are working so that NGA can ensure they are free from abuse;
  2. Publicly commit that when any McDonald’s franchisee commits wage theft or other labor law violations, McDonald’s corporate will take responsibility by making the workers whole and punishing the franchisee; and
  3. Meet the nationwide demand for a $15 an hour wage and the right to form a union without retaliation.

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

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently upheld the right of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to set prevailing wages in the H-2B guestworker program.

Below is a statement by Jennifer J. Rosenbaum, Legal Director of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA):

workers“The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirms the critical role of the Department of Labor, and shows that DOL was right all along: raising the prevailing wages for employers in the H-2B program is necessary to protect job quality for all workers—both guestworkers and the U.S. workers alongside them. The NGA has fought continuously to make sure that prevailing wages for H-2B employers are fair to all workers, and that employers don’t further disadvantage U.S. workers by taking unlawful deductions or kick-backs.”

“The Obama Administration’s Department of Labor, under previous Secretary Hilda Solis and now under Secretary Tom Perez, has shown balanced leadership by proposing critical regulations that level the playing field for the more than 24 million workers in key H-2B sectors. Both the wage rule and the comprehensive rule are balanced compromises, and are critical to protect guestworkers and the U.S. workers who work alongside them. Now Congress needs to stop blocking implementation of the DOL’s comprehensive H-2B regulations, which prohibit employer retaliation against workers who expose exploitation by H-2B employers and prohibit temporary staffing agencies from using the program to undercut U.S. workers.”

NGA co-founder and leader Daniel Castellanos said:

“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.”

Guestworkers March on Beach Resort Where They Exposed Labor Abuse

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

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:

  1. That their employers pay back the money the workers are owed, including the unlawful recruitment fees, overpriced housing deductions, and unpaid hours and overtime.
  2. That the politicians who received political contributions from the property managers put that money into a fund to make the workers whole, and support immigration reform with strong worker protections. The first to do so should be U.S. Reps. Steve Southerland and Jeff Miller, in whose backyard the abuse took place.

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

Companies that Profited from Immigrant Abuse Donated to Anti-Immigrant Republicans

FL guestworkers who exposed abuse demand that U.S. Reps give up dirty money

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 companies and their executives have given about $174,000 to state and federal candidates and their PACs since 1990, including $19,550 in the 2012 cycle.
  • The top recipient is the Republican Party of Florida with $18,241 in donations.  Another $6,000 went to the Republican Party of Florida Federal Campaign Account.
  • Other recipients include Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL), Sen. Mark Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
  • The donors gave $147,207 to Republicans, versus $5,850 to Democrats (25:1).

“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:

  1. That their employers pay back the money the workers are owed, including the unlawful recruitment fees, overpriced housing deductions, and unpaid hours and overtime.
  2. That the politicians who received political contributions from the property managers put that money into a fund to make the workers whole, and support immigration reform with strong worker protections. The first to do so should be Reps. Jeff Miller and Steve Southerland, in whose backyard the abuse took place.

Download:

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

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.

Guestworker Whistleblowers Seek Protection in Miami

As abusive employer ups threats of retaliation, Jamaican guestworkers
seek aid from U.S. Reps, federal authorities, organized labor

WHAT:  Press conference by guestworkers who exposed severe labor abuse on Florida’s Emerald Coast

WHO:  Jamaican H-2B guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance; allies from Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), UNITE HERE, SEIU 32BJ

WHERE: UNITE HERE, 1525 NW 167 St., Suite 450, Miami, FL 33169

WHEN: 5 PM Wednesday, August 21, 2013

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

MIAMI, FL, August 21—Facing fresh threats of retaliation from the Emerald Coast employer who subjected them to severe labor abuse, immigrant guestworkers will hit Miami on Wednesday, asking politicians, immigration authorities, and organized labor for protection.

As Tallahassee media reported (NPR, ABC TV), H-2B guestworkers from Jamaica came forward on Monday to expose the horrific conditions they endured while a labor contractor called Mister Clean leased them out to luxury condo managers on Florida’s Emerald Coast.

When the workers demanded their rights earlier this summer—complaining of brutal housing conditions and zero dollar checks—the employer responded with written threats he would evict them and have them deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The workers filed an official complaint with the Department of Labor on Monday and met with Rep. Steve Southerland. They exposed how under the current broken immigration system, employers use threats of deportation to block all immigrant workers—even those on guestworker visas—from exposing illegal practices.

In response, the workers’ employer intensified threats on Tuesday to cancel the workers’ visas and blacklist them.

On Wednesday, workers will seek support from Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, as well as civil and labor rights leaders from the Florida Immigration Coalition, SEIU 32, and UNITE HERE. The will also ask the Miami field office of ICE to pledge not to collaborate with the employer in deporting them.

The abuse and threats the workers faced is a clear demonstration of the need for immigration reform with strong worker protections. This exposé comes on the heels of a Friday-night announcement by the Republican National Committee rejecting comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship, and favoring further criminalization of immigrants instead.

 

Guestworkers to U.S. Reps in FL: Pass Immigration Reform to End the Abuse We Faced

Jamaican guestworkers defy threats of deportation to expose abuse in backyard of U.S. Reps who oppose immigration reform

TALLAHASSEE, FL, Aug. 19, 2013—On Monday, immigrant guestworkers on H-2B visas defied threats of deportation to expose horrific conditions they endured while they were leased out as housecleaners to luxury condo managers on Florida’s Emerald Coast.

Workers showed copies of zero-dollar checks they received when exorbitant housing deductions and inadequate hours brought their take-home pay so low that they were told they owed the employer money at the end of a pay period.

When the workers stood up to demand their pay, the employer made verbal and written threats that he would evict them and have them deported by immigration police.

“He held us hostage. We were mistreated. We were robbed,” said Judith Heslop, one of 150 guestworkers on H-2B visas from Jamaica who were recruited to work for a contractor called Mister Clean Laundry and Cleaning Services. “Now I’m here standing up for our rights and justice. No other worker should go through what we did.”

Heslop and her fellow workers joined the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) to take action. On Monday, they filed an official complaint with the Department of Labor, and also met with the office of U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland (FL-2), who represents one of the districts where they worked. The workers asked Rep. Southerland to support a thorough investigation into the workplace violations, threats, and retaliation they faced.

They also called on Southerland, together with Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-1), to reject the Republican National Committee’s newly hardened stance against comprehensive immigration reform, and to support reform with strong worker protections to prevent future abuse.

“While these workers are defying threats of deportation to expose the abuse they faced, the Republican Party is pushing for further criminalization of immigrants like them,” said Saket Soni, Executive Director of the NGA. “This is how broken our immigration system is: even guestworkers on federal work visas can be trapped in abuse by threats of deportation. If Republican House members truly believe in the rule of law, they need to pass comprehensive immigration reform with strong worker protections.”

Florida AFL-CIO Legislative and Political Director Rich Templin said: “When immigrant workers like these come forward to expose abuse, they’re not just standing up for themselves—they’re standing up for the millions of U.S. workers alongside them. Immigrant workers need real reform, a path to citizenship, and strong worker protections for the sake of every worker in the U.S.”

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

Photos

Background

In early 2013, over 150 guestworkers, mostly women, were recruited in Jamaica to serve as housecleaners for luxury condos on Florida’s Emerald Gulf Coast.

The workers paid $2,000 to $2,500 apiece in recruitment fees and costs to participate in the H-2B guestworker visa program with the hopes of providing for their children and families back in Jamaica. They were promised they would earn that money back within a few weeks of full-time work, and would be provided decent living conditions.

Instead, a labor contractor called Mister Clean Laundry and Cleaning Services trapped them in a nightmare of economic desperation and threats of deportation. Mister Clean leased them out to luxury beach condos managed by Silver Shells Beach Resort and Spa in Destin, FL; The Resort Collection of Panama City; Five Star Beach Properties, LLC; and Oaseas Resorts LLC.

  • Workers took on as much as $2,500 in debt to come to the United States, and after nearly five months cleaning condos, still owe money to creditors back home.
  • Workers were packed up to 15 people to a two-bedroom company apartment, sleeping on the floor while paying up to $375 a month each in rent.
  • Workers faced restricted hours and mandatory deductions—including a $70 “uniform fee” for a t-shirt—that at times brought their paychecks to below $0. Workers were told they owed money on payday to cover inflated cost of rent in company housing.
  • While many workers faced insufficient hours, others were overworked to the point of collapse, facing repeated 14-hour shifts with no overtime pay.
  • Workers were repeatedly paid with bad checks, and would have to wait for replacement checks without money to buy food or send home to their children.

The workers are on strike from their employer, and are demanding:

  1. That their employers pay back the money the workers are owed, including the unlawful recruitment fees, overpriced housing deductions, and unpaid hours and overtime.
  2. That Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pledge not to retaliate against the workers, rejecting the employers’ attempt to use threats of deportation as a weapon to cover up abuse and silence whistleblowers.
  3. That the politicians in whose backyard the abuse took place shift to vocal support for Comprehensive Immigration Reform to prevent future abuse. 

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

***FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE***

Florida Guestworkers Expose Severe Labor Abuse

Jamaican guestworkers defy threats of deportation to expose abuse
in backyard of U.S. Reps who oppose immigration reform

WHAT:  Press conference by guestworkers exposing severe labor abuse on Florida’s Emerald Coast

WHO:  Jamaican H-2B guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance; allies from labor, clergy, and civil rights communities

WHERE: Florida Press Center, 336 E. College Ave, Tallahassee, FL 32301

WHEN: 11 AM Monday, August 19, 2013

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

TALLAHASSEE, FL—On August 19, at 11 a.m., immigrant guestworkers on H-2B visas will defy threats of deportation to expose horrific conditions they endured while they were leased out as housecleaners to luxury condo managers on Florida’s Emerald Coast.

The workers will expose how under the current guestworker system, employers use immigration enforcement to block workers from exposing illegal practices. The workers will call on the U.S. Representatives in the districts where they worked—Reps. Jeff Miller (FL-1) and Steve Southerland (FL-2)—to support a thorough investigation into workplace violations and the threats and retaliation the workers faced. They will also call for a meeting with the Representatives to share their firsthand experience with the guestworker program and the reforms that are needed as part of immigration reform. The workers will then march with their supporters to the Department of Labor to submit an official complaint against their employer.

The workers’ employer, a contractor on Florida’s Emerald Coast, charged the workers thousands of dollars in recruitment fees that plunged their families into debt. He forced them into overcrowded company housing and sub-minimum-wage jobs, then leased them to luxury beach condo managers. When the workers stood up to demand their pay, the employer issued written threats that he would evict them and have them deported by immigration police.

The abuse and threats the workers faced is a clear demonstration of the need for immigration reform with strong worker protections. This exposé comes on the heels of a Friday-night announcement by the Republican National Committee rejecting comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship, and favoring further criminalization of immigrants instead.

The workers will call on Reps. Miller and Southerland to reject this stance and support immigration reform that will prevent future abuse of immigrant workers in their districts and across the United States.

 

The following statement was released by Saket Soni, Executive Director of the National Guestworker Alliance, on June 24, 2013:

We strongly oppose the harsh border militarization measures that have been added to the Senate immigration bill through the Corker-Hoeven Amendment. Further militarization will make border communities less safe, and waste $30 billion of taxpayer money at a time when tens of millions of U.S. workers are struggling to make ends meet.

There are existing amendments that would offset the harms of the Corker-Hoeven Amendment, and the Senate bill needs to incorporate them. These include civil rights protections for people who live in border communities, and whistleblower protections for immigrant guestworkers on H-2B visas.

Without whistleblower protections, the Corker-Hoeven Amendment will make it even easier for employers to trap guestworkers in exploitation, and to trap the U.S. workers alongside them in a race to the bottom. Currently, guestworkers’ legal status is bound to a single employer, letting employers silence worker whistleblowers by threatening firing and deportation. Corker-Hoeven includes harsh penalties on visa overstays that would make employers’ threats even more intimidating. That means more labor abuse, fewer whistleblowers, and falling wages and conditions for U.S. workers. Strong whistleblower protections for H-2B guestworkers would provide a check on this abuse.

We urge senators to open up a path to include these crucial civil and labor rights protections before the bill is finalized. Americans overwhelmingly want immigration reform that protects the rights of all America’s workers, whether immigrant or U.S.-born. U.S. immigration policy needs to reflect that.

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


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