Victims of Forced Labor Suffer from Lack of Protections

On June 4th, 2012, eight brave workers from CJ’s Seafood went on strike in their fight to expose serious exploitation by their employer.  The workers were victims of forced labor, enduring conditions that have been described as deplorable as abuses found in third world countries by a report released by the Workers’ Rights Consortium on June 20th, 2012.

The workers were subjected to 16-24 hour shifts.  They were not allowed breaks, and the doors to the facility were blocked to keep workers in.  Their pay checks did not add up to all the hours worked, let alone overtime, falling far short of minimum wage or prevailing wage standards.

CJ’s Seafood workers on strike. Photo by National Guestworkers Alliance.

After a complaint to local authorities surfaced, a special staff meeting was called – one in which all U.S. citizen workers were excluded.  The manager told workers, ‘he knew good and bad people, and knew how to find them and their families, here or in Mexico.’  This was a threat he thought he could get away with because of the precarious immigration status of the workers.

All too often that is the entirety of the story.  A story so common in fact, that Jobs with Justice has joined other national organizations in the POWER Campaign to build protections for the basic civil and labor rights of workers who organize to end such exploitation.

Workers who try to stand up for their rights are often retaliated against with immigration enforcement in order to shut them up.  But in this case, the decision of eight workers to bravely organize exposed the forced labor at CJs Seafood, a Walmart supplier, to the world.

The workers joined the National Guest Workers Alliance, a POWER Campaign partner, to make sure their employer was held liable for labor law violations.  Even as Walmart tried to cover it up, the striking workers went to Washington D.C. to meet with officials and share their stories.

From there they went on to New York, where they staged a hunger strike in front of a Walmart board member’s house.  They continued organizing even after CJs was fined by the Department of Labor to the tune of nearly a quarter million dollars to help other workers facing similar abuse.

But despite the victory against their employer, these workers are still in a precarious position.  Because there visas are tied to their employer and because there are no whistle blower protections for immigrant workers who report labor violations, like those that would be provided in the POWER Act, these workers run the risk of being deported.

Without specific protections the CJ’s Seafood workers are determined to continue to fight so that they can stay in Louisiana reach out to other workers suffering from exploitation and retaliation.  And the POWER Campaign is determined to expand protections for worker leaders in their fight for dignity.

Workers on the Front Lines

josueAfter Hurricanes Gustav and Ike forced people living on the Gulf Coast to evacuate, I was recruited to work along with 11 other workers from a day-laborer corner in New Orleans. The employer promised us good work, fair wages, safe conditions and housing in Texas. We believed him. When we arrived in Beaumont, we were horrified...
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