Guestworkers Sue Mississippi Labor Brokers, Expose Captive Worker RacketApril 20, 2009
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday April 20th, 2009
Jacob Horwitz (504) 452.9159
Guestworkers Sue Mississippi Labor Brokers, Expose Captive Worker Racket
Labor Broker Kingpins Defrauded U.S. Government to Run Lease-a-Worker Racketeering Ring
Temporary H-2B guestworkers filed a class action lawsuit today against major Mississippi labor contracting kingpins Brian and David Knight. The lawsuit alleges that Five Star Contractors LLC and Knights Marine & Industrial Services, Inc. fraudulently imported workers from Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines to a surveilled Mississippi labor camp in order to run a lease-a-worker racket in violation of federal law. The workers, who are welders and pipefitters, have been deadlocked in a fight for their dignity since they were brought to Mississippi in November 2007. The workers are members of the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
The workers’ suit exposes companies Five Star and Knights Marine, detailing the way that contractor kingpins Brian and David Knight “manipulated the H-2B guestworker program and defrauded the U.S. government and vulnerable migrant workers to generate a large pool of easily exploitable workers for on-call labor at Gulf Coast shipyards.”
Lured by false promises, workers paid thousands of dollars in illegal recruitment fees to agents of the U.S. companies. They were also pressured to turn over the deeds of their homes to the agents. “I plunged my family into debt to raise $7,000.00 for the visa,” said Miro Saucedo, a class representative. “We were desperate. They promised us American dreams but we arrived into a nightmare.”
The guestworkers’ civil suit vividly recounts the nightmare: “Upon arrival in Mississippi, they were transported to a surveillance labor camp consisting of windowless portable metal buildings while they waited weeks to be leased out. They waited weeks without work as their debts grew and they became increasingly desperate for Five Star and Knights Marine to comply with their contractual promises to workers and the U.S. Government.” Miro Saucedo, a class representative, said: “Five Star and Knights Marine held us hostage to hope of jobs that didn’t exist.”
Stripped of their dignity in the labor camp, workers fought back to demand that the companies comply with their promises to them and the U.S. government, but Five Star and Knights Marine took advantage of the rules of the H-2B guestworker program—which renders guestworkers completely dependent on their sponsoring employer for legal status, employment, and housing—to further coerce and threaten the guestworkers.
When worker Moises Santos submitted a petition on behalf of the workers, he was fired in retaliation for organizing. Santos later filed claims with the National Labor Relations Board. In a watershed victory, Santos won $13,000.00 in back wages.
“Subcontractors like Five Star manipulate the H-2B program year after year, creating a glut of easily exploitable workers who are on-call and desperate for work,” said Jacob Horwitz, an organizer with the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity.
The workers seek a declaration that their rights have been violated and an award of damages for Defendants’ unlawful conduct, including violations of the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §201 et seq., as well as for breach of contract, common law fraud, and breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. The guestworkers seek this relief to make them whole for damages they have suffered and to ensure that they and other H-2B guestworkers will not be subjected by the Defendants to such illegal conduct in the future.
“The defendants’ actions are illegal and immoral – but not uncommon,” said Saket Soni, Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “The Department of Labor signs off for employers who commit fraud and lease workers out of labor camps with full impunity. We need the Obama Administration to take a lesson in courage from these workers. We need them to crack down on companies no matter how powerful they are. The Obama Administration needs to protect workers, and needs to protect U.S. labor law.”
The workers are represented by lawyers specializing in employment and class actions: Jason J. Thompson and Kevin J. Stoops of Sommers Schwartz PC; Robert A. Alvarez of Jose Sandoval PC; Edward J. Tuddenham, Esq; Matthew L. Turner of Turner & Turner, P.C.; and Brent McBride of McBride Law Firm, PLLC.