Posts Tagged ‘exploitation’

Jamaican Guestworkers Protest Alleged Abuse from Panhandle Employer – WMBB – 9/4/13

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.

PHOTOS: Guest workers protest job conditions – The News Herald – 9/4/2013

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

Will immigration reform protect workers? – Reuters Op-Ed by Josh Eidelson

Will immigration reform protect workers?
Reuters

Josh Eidelson
July 17th, 2013

As House Republicans mull maiming the Senate’s immigration bill, a thousand pundits are asking what their moves will mean for future elections. Meanwhile, far from the spotlight, some courageous immigrant workers are asking whether Congress will finally disarm employers who use immigration status to silence employees. If Congress punts on immigration reform, or merely passes an industry wish list, it will have doubled-down on complicity in a little-discussed trend that’s driving down working conditions for U.S.-born and immigrant workers alike: For too many employers, immigration law is a tool to punish workers who try to organize.

The workers watching Congress include Ana Rosa Diaz, who last year was among the Mexican H-2B visa guest workers at CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana, peeling crawfish sold by Walmart. Accounts from workers and an NGO assessment suggest the CJ’s workers had ample grievances, from the manager that threatened them with a shovel, to the worms and lizards in the moldy trailers where they slept, to the swamp fungus that left sticky blisters on their fingers as they raced through shifts that could last twenty hours.

To maintain that miserable status quo, workers allege, management regularly resorted to threats. The most dramatic came in May 2012, when they say CJ’s boss Mike LeBlanc showed up at the start of their 2 a.m. shift to tell them he knew they were plotting against him, and that he knew “bad men” back in Mexico, and to remind them that — through labor recruiters there — he knew where their families lived. Then LeBlanc ticked off some names, including Diaz’s daughter. Diaz told me the threat of violence was all too clear: “I’ve never been so afraid of anybody in my life.”

Long before that speech, CJ’s workers say their managers deployed an all-too-common threat, what they call the “black list”: not just being deported back to Mexico, but being prevented by recruiters there from ever working in the United States again. “That’s what makes us the bosses’ subjects,” Diaz told me in a 2012 interview. “We’ve realized most bosses use the same tactics…” said her co-worker Martha Uvalle. “‘I’ll send you back to Mexico. I’ll report you to immigration. You’ll never come back.’” (CJ’s Seafood did not respond to various reporters’ requests for comment last year, including mine. Efforts to reach the company for comment last week were unsuccessful.)

Guest workers aren’t the only immigrants whose bosses can wield their immigration status as a weapon. Too often, employers who’ve happily gotten rich off the labor of undocumented workers develop a sudden interest in those employees’ legal status once they start speaking up. A few days after three-year subcontracted food court employee Antonio Vanegas joined a strike in the government-owned Ronald Reagan Building, he was detained by Homeland Security and placed in a four-day immigration detention. The same day that workers at Milwaukee’s Palermo’s Pizza plant presented their boss with a union petition, management presented workers with letters stating they’d need to verify their legal status. Ten days later, Palermo’s fired 75 striking workers, arguing it was just following immigration law.

For every immigrant worker that risks retaliation, there are others that choose not to, chastened by a well-founded fear that their status will be used against them. (There’s a risk of retaliationanytime U.S. workers try to exercise workplace rights, but the threat for undocumented or guest workers is particularly acute.) That vulnerability holds back the efforts of unions and other labor groups to organize and transform low-wage industries — or even to ensure employers pay minimum wage to their workers, immigrant or otherwise. It helps explain why the center of gravity in organized labor — long the site of struggles between exclusion and equality — has swung decisively in recent decades to support immigration reform. Rather than pushing to deport immigrants, unions (including my former employer) are mostly trying to organize them. The less leverage employers have over immigrants’ legal status, the more leverage immigrant and U.S.-born workers will have to wrest dollars and dignity from their bosses together.

The Senate’s immigration bill takes a few key steps to make that easier, each of which activists expect will face strong opposition in the House. The bill features a path to citizenship that organizers expect will help disarm deportation-happy bosses by allowing millions of workers to obtain secure and equal legal status. It creates a new “W visa” program with more labor protections that advocates hope will become a template to someday replace existing guest worker programs like the H-2B. And the bill includes several anti-retaliation measures designed to stem abuse: from more chances for workers who exposed crimes to get special visas or stays of deportation, to language overturning a Supreme Court decision that prevented illegally fired undocumented workers from getting back pay.

Those pro-labor provisions already come with painful sacrifices. Even before the Senate pegged it to a militarized “border surge,” that path to citizenship was long and littered with obstacles. Those include a requirement of near-continuous employment that advocates warn could still leave immigrants especially vulnerable to retaliatory firings, and an exclusion based on criminal convictions that — combined with a mandate that employers use the controversial status-checking software e-Verify — could leave some workers more vulnerable than ever. And advocates note that the H-2B program could at least temporarily more than double in size during the bill, though it would be subject to some modest new protections.

Facing a hostile House, labor officials are framing those Senate compromises as a floor for labor language in immigration reform: “There can be no further erosion of rights, and we’re protecting that as it goes to the House,” says Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s Director of Immigration and Community Action. But the Senate provisions are more likely to be treated as a ceiling. “We’ll lose all of the worker protection stuff in the House,” said a different advocate working on immigration for a union, and then “hope that reason prevails in the conference” committee tasked with reconciling Senate and House legislation.

The CJ’s Seafood story has an unusual ending: After their boss’s implied threat to their families, Diaz and seven of her co-workers mounted an against-the-odds strike. “We felt,” Diaz told me, “that if we didn’t do something to stop this, sometime in the future, it would be our children going through it.” You won’t find much such courage in Congress.

http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2013/07/17/will-immigration-reform-protect-workers/

Protect rights of immigrant whistle-blowers – CNN Op-Ed by Saket Soni

Protect rights of immigrant whistle-blowers
CNN

Saket Soni
June 25, 2013

Last week, federal immigration authorities seized more than a dozen 7-Eleven stores in New York and Virginia. Authorities charged that the stores’ franchisees “brutally exploited” more than 50 undocumented immigrant workers. The workers allegedly worked up to 100 hours a week, for as little as $3 an hour. They were forced to live in housing the employers owned and controlled, authorities said.

For many, it was a shock. An iconic American corporation was allegedly profiting from what the U.S. attorney’s office called a “modern-day plantation system.” Prosecutors are seeking $30 million in forfeiture, not only from the franchisees but also from the 7-Eleven parent corporation.

The real shock should be how common cases such as this have become.

Millions of immigrant workers are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, because employers can threaten them with retaliatory firing and deportation to silence complaints. In this context, the allegations that 7-Eleven ran a “plantation system” for 13 years sounds more plausible.

Consider: In March, workers from several nations filed federal complaints describing similar exploitation at McDonald’s restaurants in central Pennsylvania. The workers, students who had come to the United States with J-1 visas to work under the Summer Work Travel Program, reported brutal conditions, wage theft and shifts of up to 25 hours straight with no overtime pay. They said they were made to live in substandard housing owned by the employer, and faced threats of deportation when they raised concerns.

In June 2012, another group of immigrant workers alleged forced labor at a Louisiana Walmart supplier called C.J.’s Seafood. Supervisors threatened to beat them with a shovel, they said, to make them work faster, and when they spoke up, the boss allegedly threatened violence against their families.

Recent debate on the Senate floor also recalled an emblematic 2011 case of exploitation at a Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Pennsylvania. There, immigrant guest workers said in a federal complaint that they earned subminimum wage take-home pay and faced constant threats of firing and deportation.

Among the many similarities in these cases, most striking is that all four came to light because immigrant workers defied threats and blew the whistle. When they did, they stood up not just for themselves, but for U.S. workers as well.

In a recent national survey of 1,000 registered voters by CAMBIO (a coalition of pro-reform groups of which the National Guestworker Alliance is a member), 75% agreed that “if employers are allowed to get away with mistreating immigrant workers, it ends up lowering wages and hurting conditions for American workers as well.” Eighty percent agreed that “immigrant workers who blow the whistle on abusive employers are helping defend workplace standards, and should have the opportunity to stay in the U.S. to work toward citizenship.”

Right now, protections for immigrant whistle-blowers are weak. Immigration and Customs Enforcement routinely ignores a memorandum from its director, John Morton, allowing it not to pursue deportation against whistle-blowers. In New Orleans, 26 workers who helped expose exploitation in the Louisiana home elevation industry were arrested in an immigration raid in August 2011, and most are still fighting their deportations today. Across the country, workers who have been the victims of exploitation — and have come forward to stop it — are treated as disposable.

Immigration reform needs to change that. First, as the bill moves through the Senate and on to the House of Representatives, it needs to include provisions that deliver dignity at work to the more than 7 million immigrant workers in the United States — and that keep the floor from falling for the 150 million U.S.-born workers who work alongside them. A bill called the POWER Act would provide the key protections to both. It needs to be included in the immigration reform bill.

Second, immigration reform must deliver equal rights to all immigrant workers, so that unscrupulous employers can’t pick and choose the most exploitable workers to undercut the competition. All immigrant workers who come to the United States through future guest-worker programs must have strong whistle-blower protections and the right to change employers as freely as any worker on American shores.

Raising the floor for the immigrant workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy means building a stronger, more secure economy for all workers. That’s why protecting immigrant workers doesn’t just matter for immigrants. It matters for every worker in America.

 http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/25/opinion/soni-immigration-7-eleven/index.html

KahInn Lee: Why Big Business Wants More Guestworkers

KahInn Lee is a former McDonald’s guestworker on the front lines of immigration reform.

A McDonald’s franchisee used KahInn and other guestworkers as a sub-minimum wage, exploitable workforce—but the workers stood up to expose the abuse and stop it.

Corporations like McDonald’s want to hugely expand guestworker programs through immigration reform, while leaving out basic protections for guestworkers and the tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them in the same industries.

Stand with workers like KahInn: sign the petition to tell Congress that immigration reform must include key guestworker protections—for the sake of ALL America’s workers.


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