In May, a 911 dispatcher received a call from a desperate employee of CJ’s Seafood, a crawfish processing company in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The phone conversation was confusing—the caller only spoke Spanish—and when police arrived to investigate, the nervous worker, under the watchful eye of her boss, explained that she had dialed the number by mistake.
The following day, CJ’s Seafood owner Michael Leblanc called together the approximately forty people he employs under the H-2B guest worker program, the majority of whom permanently reside in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. According to accounts from multiple workers, Leblanc explained that CJ’s was a family business and that anyone who tried to harm the company by contacting authorities was harming Leblanc’s family. “He told us that he knew both good people and bad people in Mexico,” said Ana Diaz, a guest worker who has worked at CJ’s for more than eight seasons. “And that he knew where we lived and where our families lived, and could find us.”
After the threats, workers got in touch with the New Orleans–based National Guestworker Alliance. The stories shared with organizers sounded like something out of the previous century. Workers told of being forced to work twenty-four-hour shifts, with exit doors barricaded with boxes and pallets so they couldn’t escape. Breaks were discouraged with threats of violence, and Leblanc regularly opened their personal mail and had seven surveillance cameras installed to monitor their movements (the workers lived in trailers on company property).
Eight of the guest workers went on strike in June, and the Guestworker Alliance filed complaints against CJ’s Seafood with the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They also alerted Walmart, the primary purchaser of CJ’s crawfish, whose internal standards prohibit suppliers from using forced labor or having employees work more than sixty hours a week. Walmart initially tried to minimize the controversy, telling the Daily Beast that it was “unable to substantiate claims of forced labor” after conducting an investigation that failed to contact the striking workers. But late last week, the company announced it had suspended its contract with CJ’s—on the same day as the Guestworker Alliance released a report claiming that a dozen other Walmart suppliers that used guest workers had been cited with more than 600 wage and safety violations
The allegations of abuse at CJ’s Seafood come amidst a sustained effort by the Department of Labor to fix an H-2B system that too often allows unscrupulous employers to exploit guest workers while also overlooking willing American job seekers. Led by Secretary Hilda Solis—whose own father was a bracero—the agency issued regulations last year to raise guest worker pay in order to prevent employers from using the system to drive down American wages. A coalition of business interests, including the Crawfish Processors Alliance, challenged the regulation in court, where it is currently being litigated. The head of the Crawfish Processors Alliance is CJ’s Seafood owner Michael Leblanc.
“Leblanc has a business model when he brings in guest workers,” said Saket Soni, the director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “He minimizes costs and maximizes productivity by keeping workers captive. The model is being driven by Walmart to keep prices low. It’s all part of a big puzzle.” (Neither Leblanc nor Walmart responded to requests from The Nation.)