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.)
Along with last year’s attempt to raise the wages of H-2B workers, the DOL issued a sweeping rule this April that grants new rights to guest workers—including whistleblower protections—while also forcing employers to prove they have searched for American workers before turning to guest workers. “The new rule would protect guest workers exactly like the people at CJ’s Seafood,” said Soni.
But less than two weeks before the rule was to be implemented, business owners—joined by the Chamber of Commerce—sued the government, and the rule is now on hold. And in mid-June, these same business interests got a boost from a bipartisan group of senators on the appropriations committee, who voted to block the DOL from implementing the April rules.
“These rules are grossly misguided and will have a serious adverse impact on businesses across the nation who benefit from the H-2B visa program,” said Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), who sponsored the amendment. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) argued that the new rules “punish the employer” and made the improbable case that even the construction industry was finding it difficult to identify willing American employees (the unemployment rate in construction is 14.2 percent).
Tom Harkin (D-IA), who has been a key supporter of the rules, strongly disagreed, but his dissent wasn’t convincing to Democrats like Barbara Mikulski (MD) and Mary Landrieu (LA). Mikulski, whose state has a sizable number of H-2B workers in the seafood industry, justified her vote on the floor with notable incoherence, speaking about the rhythms of the seafood industry and citing a “beautiful book” about “the life cycle of the crab.” When she finally addressed the rules, she agreed that whistleblower protections were needed and that any solution must protect both guest workers and American jobs—precisely what the rules are designed to do. Confused, I asked her staff to point out what portion of the rules Mikulski actually objected to, but didn’t hear back.
The vote to block the rules came at an especially awkward time for Senator Landrieu, who represents the state where the most recent H-2B abuse had just come to light. The Guestworker Alliance called the vote a “disgrace,” and Soni stated that he was “particularly disappointed at Senator Mary Landrieu’s vote to defund the new rules, since Louisiana has a high proportion of guest workers and many documented cases of employer abuse.”
What’s especially odd about the uproar the rules have provoked is how reasonable the rules are. Along with whistleblower provisions, they prevent companies from charging guest workers for fees associated with the application process, which saddle many impoverished workers with enormous debt before they arrive in the United States. Workers would also be guaranteed three-quarters of the hours they were originally promised in their contracts, preventing the practice of over-recruiting workers, who are forced to sit on their hands and incur more debt.
“I recently got a call from crab pickers who have been here for six weeks and have yet to really work,” said Rachel Micah-Jones, the director of Casa de los Derechos Migrantes in Maryland, which organizes guest workers. “They have to pay rent but have no way to make money, and are literally starving.” Without a source of income, desperate workers have begun visiting a nearby church for free food.
But the rules don’t simply help guest workers, whom politicians may have little motivation to support (after all, guest workers don’t vote); the rules also prevent companies from using the H-2B program to avoid hiring American workers, which should be a winning issue for either party at a time of chronic unemployment. Numerous investigations have demonstrated that the current system shortchanges American workers. Two years ago, for example, the Government Accountability Office went undercover to pose as business owners. Their goal, or so they told labor recruiters, was to replace their American workforce with H-2B guest workers. They found that a number of recruiters were more than happy to help. A recruiter in Texas, who thought he was speaking with a landscaping firm, advised them to fire their American workers for cause or otherwise induce them to quit. Then, to minimize the chances that other Americans would seek to fill the new openings, he explained that the company should schedule interviews for early in the day—preferably before 7 am. And if any applicants did show up, they ought to be given a fifty-pound bag and told to sprint around the shop to prove they were “fit for the work.”
Of the labor recruiters contacted by the GAO, 17 percent offered such advice to weed out American workers. Other methods of rigging the system against American workers, exposed through government audits and investigative media reports, included posting job notices in states other than where the majority of the work was to be performed and scheduling interviews for 6 pm on Christmas Eve.
In response to such abuses, the new rule compels employers to provide evidence—not just their good word—of efforts to find American workers. Companies must consult with state workforce agencies, document job postings and interviews and provide explanations for American applicants who are rejected.
The fate of the DOL’s new regulations remains to be seen, as they are being attacked both in the courts and the Capitol. Also unclear is the fate of the striking CJ’s Seafood workers, who have attempted to confront Walmart directors in New York City and recently met with Senate staff members in Washington, DC.
“We leave our families to come here to work,” said CJ’s Seafood worker Diaz, who has four children back in Mexico. “It costs us a lot—especially when we find that the reality isn’t what was described.” Going on strike meant losing her job and Diaz is preparing to return to Mexico. But she doesn’t have any regrets about coming forward to expose the conditions she and her coworkers endured. “We did what we did to prevent this from happening to future workers,” she explained. “Our message is simple: our lives have value.”