Every year, US companies invite thousands of special guests from abroad into the labor market, and they arrive clutching visas that will provide them short-term jobs in food processing, farmwork and other seasonal sectors. The guestworker’s visit is often an uneasy one: everything hinges on that temporary work permit—not just a job, but also the very right to be in the country. So they are typically careful to avoid making any trouble with the boss who sponsored them.
But Olivia Guzman is the rare guestworker who has stood up to her boss, the seafood processor Bayou Land Seafood, and so this year, she’s been disinvited. And when the company declined to bring her back to Louisiana for her usual seasonal job, she got even bolder, because she was sure that she was being shut out of the country simply for her labor activism and for organizing her coworkers.
Guzman did eventually make it back to the United States from her town in Sinaloa last week, to knock on her employer’s door—not for her usual annual work assignment, but to serve a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The freshly filed complaint, backed by Congress of Day Laborers, STAND with Dignity and National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) alleges Bayou Land “refused to hire and blacklisted” Guzman due to her “protected concerted activity on behalf of the rights of guestworkers.”
Guzman’s activity is “protected” only on paper, however. According to labor advocates, workers in the gulf seafood processing industry have suffered massive exploitation and intimidation. Bayou Land’s alleged retaliation stems from a successful labor campaign that Guzman helped organize against Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood. In 2012, the campaign, led by NGA and other advocacy groups, exposed patterns of epidemic labor violations, from wage theft to forced labor conditions to health hazards, along an intricate supply chain that links big retailers to the dregs of Louisiana’s seafood industry to Mexican towns that feed migrant labor into the factories. The campaign, which involved striking and public protests as well as petitioning regulators, eventually prompted the Labor Department to propose various reforms to the H-2B regulations. Though the regulations have been stalled by litigation and blocked by congressional conservatives, employers have apparently made some limited material improvements in working conditions.
But Guzman says that across the sector, guestworkers still lack the power in the workplace to really negotiate the terms of their employment, and hers is a case in point.
Guzman says that when she recently reapplied for Bayou Land’s sponsorship, they told her that they were refusing to hire her because she had allegedly caused “problems” with her coworkers, and repeatedly ignored her and NGA’s requests for further justification.