Guestworkers sue major Louisiana grower for labor trafficking, slave-like conditions – 12/10/08

MEDIA ALERT:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT – SAKET SONI, 504 881 6610, saketsoni@hotmail.com

New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice

GUESTWORKERS SUE MAJOR LOUSIANA GROWER FOR LABOR TRAFFICKING, SLAVE-LIKE CONDITIONS

H-2A farmworkers who escaped involuntary servitude return to take employer to court for violations of federal law

Mexican guestworkers who were subjected to involuntary servitude in the strawberry fields of Louisiana from 2006 to 2008 today brought major civil litigation against their former employer, Bimbo’s Best Produce and Charles “Bimbo” Relan.

In Israel Antonio-Morales et al.  v. Bimbo’s Best Produce, the guestworkers claim that  Charles “Bimbo” Relan violated federal laws inluding those prohibiting  forced Labor; trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor; and subminimum wages.

The workers were recruited in Mexico to work in Louisiana on temporary H-2A visas  as strawberry pickers for Charles “Bimbo” Relan and his company, Bimbo’s Best Produce.  Upon their arrival in Amite, Louisiana, Relan illegally confiscated their passports in order to prohibit them from escaping from his fields.  He held the workers in forced labor, subjecting them to humiliation and degrading treatment.  “He treated us like animals. We were not human beings to him,” said Guestworker Plaintiff J. Jesus Martinez-Hernandez.  “We worked hunched over for hours doing backbreaking work.  If we tried to rest, he would threaten to call immigration and deport us.  And he had our passports – so we could not escape.”   Workers are members of the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, a membership organization of guestworkers in the Gulf Coast and a project of the New  Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, details how Relan “subjected [the workers] to a scheme of psychological coercion, threats of serious harm, and threatened abuse of the legal process to maintain control over them and force them to continue laboring in his strawberry fields,” and asserted that he “exploited his physical power and control and took advantage of the workers’ geographic, linguistic, and cultural isolation,” and “took advantage of the rules of the structure of the H-2A guestworker program – which renders guestworkers are completely dependent on the sponsoring employer for legal status, employment, and housing – to further coerce and threaten the guestworkers.”

“These kinds of abuses are unconscionable, but not uncommon,” said Saket Soni, Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “Employers have consistently manipulated the U.S. guestworker program to subject workers to involuntary servitude in Louisiana and across the South.”

As detailed in the complaint, Relan made brutal and theatrical demonstrations of his power over the guestworkers, firing his shotgun over their heads, spraying them with pesticides, and physically assaulting at least one worker.  The complaint also details how Relan threatened the workers with unlawful arrest, eviction, and deportation and paid below the federal minimum wage.

“The workers wanted to escape, but felt they had no choice but to work for Relan,” said Daniel Castellanos, organizer with the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity.  When  members of the African American and immigrant communities of New Orleans came forward to offer workers their protection, workers escaped involuntary servitude.

Relan is also the subject of an FBI criminal investigation into human trafficking crimes, opened earlier this year after workers brought his crimes to the attention of federal authorities.  Some of the guestworkers were granted “continued presence” in the United States as cooperating witnesses to the FBI’s investigation, basic protection and legal status granted to victims of trafficking who cooperate with US federal authorities to bring their traffickers to justice.

“These guestworkers have come forward to file litigation at a time when a new administration needs to hear their message,” said Soni.  “Workers need U.S. laws enforced for their protection – and federal authorities need to go after employers like Bimbo Relan.  If change is really coming in Washington, it needs to include these workers.”

The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice brought the litigation on behalf of the workers.  Workers’ claims also include violations of the minimum wage (FLSA); breach of contract; and battery.  Community members who assisted workers in escaping involuntary servitude included New Orleans residents Ted Quant (a longtime labor organizer and professor), Damien Ramos, and Gerald Lenoir, Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

For further information about the civil litigation please contact:

Jennifer Rosenbaum, Counsel, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice – (615) 423-0152, jjrosenbaum@gmail.com