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Report Confirms Guest Worker Abuse at Wal-Mart Supplier

Speaking of temporary agricultural guest workers, a program which Mitt Romney would like to expand by removing red tape, I have an update on that Wal-Mart supplier, C.J.’s Seafood, engaged in forced labor of undocumented immigrants at a seafood processing plant in Louisiana. You’ll recall that Wal-Mart initially denied any misconduct at its supplier, saying that they hadn’t been able to substantiate the claims. The Workers Rights Consortium decided to do their own investigation, which differed from Wal-Mart’s, in that they actually talked to the principals. And in a release, they have backed up the claims by the workers:

An investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) has found systematic violations of labor law and grossly inhumane treatment of workers at a Walmart seafood supplier in Louisiana.

As documented in a 37-page report, issued today by the WRC, workers are forced to work shifts of up to 24 hours during peak production periods, with as few as four hours between shifts, are paid 40 percent below the legal minimum wage, have virtually every aspect of their lives controlled by their employer, and are subjected to threats of deportation and violence in order to frighten them into submission. The affected workers are laborers from Mexico, here under the U.S. government’s H2-B guest worker visa program. The WRC concluded that the totality of the abuses taking place at this employer constitute forced labor under U.S. law […]

“I’ve worked as a guestworker for eight years. It was always bad, but I needed the work to support my family,” said Ana Rosa Diaz, one of the H-2B workers who exposed forced labor at the Walmart supplier. “They humiliated us. They threatened to beat us with shovels to make us work faster. When one worker called the police, the boss threatened our families in Mexico. American politicians need to understand what it means to be a guestworker here. All we want is to be treated like human beings.”

Here’s the entire WRC report. It says that the conditions at the plant “rival any sweatshop in China or Bangladesh,” and WRC Executive Director Scott Nova added, “Most Americans would be shocked that such conditions exist in this country.”

WRC writes how the situation at C.J.’s Seafood is a perfect example of how the H-2B visa program can enable employers to exploit their labor force, given the lack of oversight and the vulnerable status of the workers. This is a sadly common practice, and speaks to the crucial need for H-2B reform.

If you have a chance, read the report, it’s quite detailed as to the specific violations incurred. I’m glad that WRC placed the blame specifically on Wal-Mart for these violations. Wal-Mart maintains their sky-high profits based on low production costs at their suppliers. As Nova writes, Wal-Mart “did nothing to protect the rights of workers at this facility, despite long-standing public assurances that it is policing labor practices in its supply chain.” C.J.’s pretty much has one customer, and that’s Sam’s Club. Wal-Mart has the wherewithal to change this if they want.

WRC’s recommendations for Wal-Mart include an immediate halt to purchases from C.J.’s, a negotiated settlement for the workers harmed by the abusive practices, an offer of work granted to anyone at C.J.’s who loses their job if they shut down from this episode, and an “enforceable agreement” for rules on guest workers in Wal-Mart’s domestic supply chain, so that forced labor and rights violations never happen again.

Saket Soni, Executive Director of the National Guestworker Alliance, said in a statement that the guest workers were unable to meet with Wal-Mart board members after protests in New York City this week. The exploited, striking workers have moved on to Washington, where they have scheduled a meeting with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who just last week voted against new Labor Department protections for H-2b guest workers. And it appears a coalition is building – Al Sharpton’s National Action Network met with some of the guest workers this week.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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