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Department of Labor Hits Wal-Mart Supplier With Hundreds of Thousands in Fines

Following up on a previous item, the US Department of Labor has cited C.J.’s Seafood of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, and instructed them to pay a series of fines, as well as back wages to a group of guest workers the company abused with harsh, illegal working conditions. The incident is notable because C.J.’s Seafood was a major supplier of seafood to the Wal-Mart chain.

The citations concluded an investigation by DoL into C.J.’s Seafood, which found 12 safety violations related to blocked exits and hazardous work conditions, including working with fire, faulty electrical systems and chemicals. DoL also found that the company “failed to pay minimum wage and overtime compensation to 73 workers as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act,” in addition to violations of the H-2B temporary foreign guest worker program.

Workers at C.J.’S Seafood walked off the job after being subjected to excruciatingly long shifts peeling and boiling crawfish and other seafood, where they were locked in the work site. When the workers complained about this to plant managers, they were threatened with being sent back to their home countries, as well as threats against members of their family. The case showed the potential pitfalls of the H-2B system, where guest workers with few rights or the ability to speak out get exploited by companies. The National Guestworkers Alliance assisted the C.J.’s workers in this case.

The safety violations carry proposed fines of $32,200. An additional OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) violation cost another $2,100. And the wage and hour penalties will cost C.J.’s Seafood $214,000, money that will go directly to the workers. This is well above the money due them, as it includes additional civil penalties and damages. C.J.’s has 15 days to comply or contest the violations. They have already refused to pay the back wages, and DoL’s Wage and Hour Division “will pursue all appropriate administrative and legal remedies to the full extent of its authority,” including federal court, according to a press release.

C.J.’s relationship with Wal-Mart brought added attention to the story, as the nation’s largest retailer was basically allowing a supplier to use what amounted to slave labor. Though Wal-Mart initially denied the charges, they eventually suspended the supplier. Subsequent investigations by independent groups found additional supply chain abuses from companies that deliver goods to Wal-Mart. The company has not yet taken action on them.

In a statement, Nancy Leppink, the deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of DoL, said, “American workers seeking jobs should not be compelled to accept substandard wages and working conditions due to employers’ abuse of temporary foreign worker visa programs.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen