Wal-Mart is under fire after guest workers at a seafood supplier of theirs in the Gulf Coast went on strike, alleging slave labor conditions and 24-hour work shifts.
The workers are in the United States with H-2B visas, which allow foreign nationals to work temporary, non-agricultural jobs if the employer can demonstrate that “there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available to do the temporary work.” Forty guestworkers from Mexico work at C.J.’s Seafood peeling and boiling crawfish five months out of the year. The company sells an estimated 85% of its crawfish to Walmart.
Workers at the seafood company are said to work up to twenty-four hours straight without overtime pay. They pay $45 of their earnings per week to live in crowded trailers with vermin and no air conditioning, according to one worker. These conditions were documented in a complaint filed last week with the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
This is the flip side to the immigration debate. When you don’t give workers the rights accorded with citizenship, you leave them available to exploitation. I’m sure the answer on the other side of this is that they ought to leave and let American workers perform these tasks, but that’s precisely what the employer doesn’t want. They only meet their profit margins through exploiting powerless labor. These people were barricaded in their work space and denied any protections or benefits such as overtime. One supervisor is quoted as saying that the workers are “ignorant people” who would be “made to understand with a shovel.” You couldn’t take that posture with someone imbued with individual rights of citizenship. A broken immigration system serves the purposes of these employers. And clearly, the H-2B visa program isn’t providing the needed protections for guest workers.
Wal-Mart said they are “unable to substantiate” the claims made by the seafood guest workers. But Jacob Horowitz, lead organizer of the National Guestworker Alliance, told Aram Roston that they have not been contacted by any investigator at Wal-Mart looking into the claims. Not has Wal-Mart spoken to any of the guest workers themselves. The US Department of Labor is still investigating.
This is reminiscent of allegations of abuse of guest workers at a Hershey factory in Pennsylvania last year. And certainly Wal-Mart is no stranger to allegations of abusive labor practices. To get a taste for how Wal-Mart operates, take a look at this story out of California. Wal-Mart used a fake reporter to infiltrate a warehouse and spy on the workers.
Warehouse Workers United (WWU), a new organization for warehouse workers in the area, caught Wal-Mart actually sending a fake “reporter” to spy on a group of workers trying to organize warehouses.
At first, the spy identified herself as “Zoe Mitchell,” a USC student “interested in terrible and illegal conditions inside warehouses that move goods for Walmart.” She told warehouse workers that she was a reporter looking into their plight.
But then WWU discovered her true identity. Zoe is actually Stephanie — Stephanie Harnett of Mercury Public Affairs, a giant public relations and lobbying firm that brags of specializing in “Latino Communications“.
Clearly, this retail giant would prefer to look the other way at the abusive labor practices of their suppliers. That’s why the guest workers and their organizers have taken the campaign to the next level.
You can see in the video the guest workers confronting Michael LeBlanc, the plant manager, with their complaints, and LeBlanc (when he’s not chasing away the cameras) refusing to retract his threats or admit to any of the alleged conduct. LeBlanc has been working with a trade group to sue the Department of Labor over a rule that would increase wages for guest workers under the H-2B visa program. And Republicans like Richard Shelby have been working to delay the new guest worker protections for up to a year. This is what they’re perpetuating.
The Workers Rights Consortium has opened an investigation into the allegations of forced labor.