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Guest workers protest job conditions
The News Herald

Randal Yakey
September 4, 2013


(Click the image for a full gallery of photos from the event)

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.

http://www.newsherald.com/news/business/guest-workers-protest-job-conditions-photo-gallery-1.197541?page=0

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

Subcontractor Servitude – New York Times op-ed

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.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/02/opinion/subcontractor-servitude.html

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.

“I felt like I was under bondage,” Denise said. “With the threats, we didn’t know where to turn.”

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!

Tell the politicians: Give back the profits from guestworker abuse, and support immigration reform with strong worker politicians!

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.

On August 26, the Jamaican guestworkers who exposed labor abuse in Florida joined fellow workers in East Orange, NJ, who also faced retaliation and threats of deportation for organizing.

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.

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.

 

On Aug. 19, 2013, Rahman Johnson of ABC/Bounce TV in Tallahassee, FL, interviewed NGA lead organizer Jacob Horwitz and Jamaican H-2B worker Shellion Harris about severe worker abuse and threats of deportation on FL’s Emerald Coast.

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


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