Louisiana government and media defend immigrant guestworker exploitation and abuse

By Brentin Mock, Bridge the Gulf

Scott Walker's recall election survival in Wisconsin last week was tough to swallow mainly because of his stance against workers rights. Hopefully it's not a sign of things to come for workers rights, especially in the Deep South where organized labor has rarely ever been welcome, leaving the door wide open for exploitation, especially for immigrants seeking opportunity in the U.S. 

We saw an unfortunate example of that near New Orleans last week, where eight seafood processors, working under H-2B guestworker permits, went on strike against alleged brutal, "slave"-like conditions imposed upon them by their employer C.J.'s Seafood. The workers were a fraction of some 40 workers working under similar oppressive conditions, said the protestors, most of them from Mexico. Michael Leblanc, the chief executive of C.J.'s Seafood, and also president of the Crawfish Processors Association, has been named in a legal complaint the workers have filed with the Department of Labor. At a protest in front of Sam's Club, the bulk retail store that buys most of the seafood that guestworkers process, the workers testified that they had been abused long enough. (Read the full legal complaint here.)

Bridge the Gulf staff were there and reported that the workers complained of having to work 24-hour shifts with no overtime pay, having their wages stolen, suffering un-air conditioned living quarters with rats, enduring badgering if they attempted to leave their squalid housing area for leisure, and being threatened with violence or deportation if they complained or spoke up for their rights. And yes these immigrants have rights, and not only because they're here on a federal work permit. Employers who've recruited massive immigrant labor dating back to Katrina have worked actively, though, to ensure that these workers have no rights that any company should respect. 

Following a pattern of complaints from immigrant workers about being exploited and threatened with violence, arrest or deportation (or all three), the US Department of Labor instituted new guestworker program rules and regulations that protect immigrants from the kind of abuse testified about C. J.'s Seafood. You'd think that people who were devastated by hurricanes and failed levees, whose homes and businesses were built back in large part thanks to immigrant labor, would support rules that protect these workers. That's not been the case, though. 

Leblanc himself is suing the Department of Labor over the rule changes. Apparently a status quo of exploitation is good for the bottomline, especially at a company that brings in upwards of $20 million annually and has Walmart as its primary client. He's just part of a small army of businesses, though, that are fighting DOL in court over the new worker protection regs, including the Louisiana Forestry Association and Bayou Lawn and Landscape. But it's no surprise that business is trying to protect dollars at the expense of human lives. What is surprising is that government officials and the media are protecting business interests. 

In a Gambit Weekly column from Jeremy Alford, employers like Leblanc were defended while DOL was blamed for putting small businesses out of business. Louisiana agricultural commissioner Mike Strain is quoted by Alford saying the new rules "will probably put Louisiana's last few remaining crawfish tail meat processors out of business." A bunch of other "small business" owners like Elmer Candy Corp. -- the second largest candy company in North America -- boohooed about the regulations while Rep. Charles Boustany shed additional tears for them saying, "One way to avoid significant expenses to our region's small businesses is for [the Labor Department] to withdraw these ill-advised rules."

The "ill-advised rules" targeted in the Gambit column are two that affect guestworkers' wages and hours. In the past, employers along the Gulf Coast could bring in hundreds of immigrant workers under the H-2B program, even if their operation only needed a fraction of that many workers. This way, they could avoid paying overtime, and if they ever needed to get rid of a worker -- because she or he was "insubordinate" or complained -- they would have another worker already on the premises to take their place, rendering immigrant workers perpetually disposable. Employers would also charge immigrant workers thousands of dollars in "recruitment fees," withholding wages while driving workers to labor obscene hours until the debt was paid off. Once the debt was paid, maybe employers kept the immigrants on the force, maybe they didn't -- either way, the company benefitted from free labor. 

Under DOL's new H-2B rules, immigrant guestworkers must be paid a prevailing wage using a formula that increases their hourly pay from what employers were used to getting away with. Alford said in his column that the new rules "guarantee guest workers will be paid 75 percent of their wages, even if they work less than three-quarters of a week," and would be compensated as such even in the event a hurricane shut the business down. Neither of these assertions are correct unfortunately. The new rules state that an employer must guarantee employment for a "total number of work hours equal to at least 75% of the workdays in each 12-week period" and if an early termination is warranted because of "fire, weather, other Act of God," then the employer is only on the hook for three-fourths of the hours "to the time of termination." Alford also wrote that the new wage rules could raise guestworker wages as much as 100% (which is also wrong.) 

In the case of the C. J.'s Seafood guestworkers, the the strikers said they were paid not by the hour, but by the pound. Meaning, as crawfish plant workers, they were tasked with de-shelling and cleaning the small shellfish, and were each paid $2 for every pound of crawfish completed. Many of them would work 12- to 15-hour shifts, averaging maybe $6 an hour. For workers who cut and trim fish and meat for a living in the New Orleans-Metarie area, the prevailing wage is roughly $9.85. (Bridge the Gulf made repeated attempts to reach Leblanc, but did not get a response from him for comment.)

There are many other protections under the new H-2B rules: mandating that employers pay for guestworkers' equipment, tools and safety gear; requiring that both employers AND their contractors abide by H2B rules; mandating that workers be paid at least biweekly; prohibiting employers from docking workers' pay for frivolous reasons; requiring employers to keep record of the number of hours guestworkers work and how much they are paid, and providing the workers with earning statements. 

Think about that. It's 2012 and we had a federal government worker program that didn't even require employers to keep accounting of their workers labor and wages, and that made workers pay for their own protective gear. It must take tremendous courage for foreign-born workers to speak out against abuse, especially when they feel physically threatened. I was reminded by an expert on immigrant worker law that an employer's participation in the federal H2B program is a privilege, not a right. Companies are not entitled to immigrant labor. So paying workers what they weigh and making sure they are protected are small prices to pay for the opportunity to have one's business prosper thanks to the guestworkers. 

The whole point of the H2B program is to help businesses stay afloat by supplying them with temporary labor when they can't find US native workers who'll do dirty work like peel crawfish. There is a cap on the number of guestworkers the nation can recruit because there still needs to be jobs available for US-born workers. We can't have a system where immigrant workers are pitted against US-born workers. We also can't have a system that decreases wages and protections for both. In fact, one condition of entering the H-2B program is that employers must prove that hiring these guestworkers "will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed US workers."

If Leblanc's lawsuit prevails, employers could bring as many South Americans in to work as they want, pay them nickles on the hour and threaten their lives if they complain. A culture of immigrant labor abuse has been in effect from Katrina through the BP oil disaster. This can't become normal. 

There's some hope for the guestworkers at C. J.'s Seafood. As a result of their Sam's Club protest, Walmart announced that they would investigate the worker abuse complaints. "We take reports like this very seriously and we will take appropriate actions based on the findings from our investigation," said Walmart's corporate affairs manager Megan Murphy to the International Business Times. 

Please read about the C. J. Seafood Eight who are striking and have called for an investigation into guestworker exploitation and abuse with the help of the National Guestworkers Alliance here.