Guest Workers in a Strange Land | The Nation


Guest Workers in a Strange Land

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Decatur tells a very different story.

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Deepa Fernandes
Deepa Fernandes is a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and the Executive Producer of content at People's...

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"These employees were just wonderful and became an immediate part of the...family," said Betsy Gambel in January, a Decatur spokesperson who recently changed employers, regarding foreigners working for Decatur.

Decatur lost roughly 90 percent of its work force after Hurricane Katrina, according to Gambel. So the company went on a proactive recruitment drive.

It was "very much a cooperative effort among all the people in the tourism industry trying to bring people back to work," Gambel said about Decatur's recruiting campaign. Gambel also claimed that Decatur paid new immigrant workers above minimum wage and made it a priority to house workers in its own "luxury" hotels. But many disagree on these points.

"Putting workers in tiny, windowless motel rooms and charging market-rate rent is outrageous," said Saket Soni, a workers-rights activist who leads the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, which has organized for the rights of immigrant workers post-Katrina.

Guest workers also have very little protection against abuses of their labor rights. In New Orleans, those abuses are stacking up. From the under-payment of wages or refusal to pay wages, to companies seizing workers' passports and documents, to failure to provide workers with a forty-hour work week, every H2-B worker I met in New Orleans articulated one grievance or another.

Fulton said that Louisiana's DOL could act only if workers filed an "official" complaint. When asked if DOL could protect workers from being fired should the employer discover the complaint, Fulton simply responded, "No."

Pedro, his roommates, and other H2-B workers, all members of Saket Soni's project, the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, took the courageous step in August 2006 of filing suit against Decatur, claiming that it had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the suit, charging that Decatur had violated the FLSA because it had not reimbursed H-2B workers for the costs associated with being able to work for the company--visas, transportation and recruiters' fees.

The suit named Decatur's CEO F. Patrick Quinn III as the defendant. Decatur put up a vigorous defense asking that the suit be dismissed. In January, Betsy Gambel said that she was confident that Decatur had not violated any worker rights and that the suit would be dismissed. In May 2007, a federal court in Louisiana denied Decatur's motion to dismiss, finding that FLSA did apply for H-2B workers. This was the first step towards justice for the workers. But if further rule changes that the Bush Administration is pursuing get passed, immigrant rights and workers rights would take many steps backwards.

A guest-worker program is profitable for employers. They do not provide employees with benefits, while the workforce is expendable, less likely to organize, and dependent on their employer for their very status in the country.

Since Pedro left New Orleans in January, he has moved across the country to find work more than once. In August, Pedro and two other guest workers left Maryland after their employer didn't pay them for two weeks.

"I wish I'd never come to the US," Pedro said. "But now I am here, I am just working to pay off my initial debt. It might take me years."

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