A group of Mexican guest workers at a seafood processing plant in Louisiana have walked off the job and sent a complaint to the U.S. Labor Department, accusing their employer of forcing them to work up to 24-hour shifts hand-picking crawfish and denying them overtime pay.
In their letter, the eight workers at CJ's Seafood in Breaux Bridge, La., said they came to the U.S. earlier this year to work in the H-2B program, a guest worker visa system that lets American employers hire foreign nationals when they can't find enough locals for the job. The guest workers claim they had to work double and triple shifts without overtime pay, while the doors to the facility were sometimes locked to prevent them from leaving.
Martha Uvalle, one of the workers listed in the complaint, told HuffPost that she'd worked in the same plant on a seasonal basis since 2006. She said that this season she was earning $2 for every pound of crawfish she peeled, or about $70 to $90 a day, and that she often worked 14 hours straight without a break.
"It should have been eight hours a day, 40 hours a week," Uvalle, a 52-year-old from Mexico, said in Spanish through a translator. "We're not allowed to take breaks. They locked the front entrance so we couldn't."
A manager at CJ's Seafood did not return calls seeking a response to the allegations. Elizabeth Todd, a Labor Department spokeswoman, confirmed that the agency received the workers' letter and is "aware of the matter."
CJ's Seafood is a supplier to Walmart subsidiary Sam's Club. Walmart spokeswoman Megan Murphy said the company is looking into the allegations to make sure CJ's is abiding by Walmart's "standards for suppliers" ethical code. "As soon as we received reports of potential violation of our ethical sourcing policy we launched an investigation," Murphy said in an email. "We take reports like this very seriously and we will take appropriate actions based on the findings from our investigation."
Like forestry and landscaping, seafood processing is an industry that relies heavily on guest workers in the U.S. on H-2B visas. Employers in the Gulf and Chesapeake Bay areas say they can't find local workers willing to pick crabs or perform other unglamorous tasks for the wages they're able to pay. Many companies say the H-2B program is critical to keeping their businesses operating, although worker groups say that some guest workers live and work under exploitative conditions with little government oversight.
The workers named in the letter to the Labor Department approached an advocacy group called the National Guestworker Alliance, which organizes workers in labor camps around the U.S. The group was involved in a mass walkout at a Hershey Co. packing plant in Pennsylvania last year. In that episode, dozens of student guest workers from Asia and Eastern Europe claimed they were packing chocolates under the threat of deportation, being paid roughly $5 per hour after their housing costs were deducted. The workers were in the U.S. on J-1 student work visas.
Jacob Horwitz, an organizer with the alliance, said the workers in Louisiana called him to complain about the crawfish processing facility. "They said they were subjected to constant humiliation and insults at the plant," said Horwitz. "They were sweating to keep their production high. "
In addition to not paying overtime, the guest workers and the alliance accuse CJ's Seafood of "threatening the guest workers with beatings to make them work faster." The workers also filed a work discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Earlier this year, the Labor Department introduced new rules that would reform the H-2B program. Among other changes, the reforms would force companies to make a greater effort to hire American workers before bringing on foreign guest workers; require companies to foot the bill for workers' visas and travel expenses; and ramp up penalties on employers that violate program rules.
Claiming the new rules would leave employers short-staffed, business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have managed to temporarily halt the reforms through a federal lawsuit.
This post has been updated with comment from Walmart.
Purported footage of the crawfish processing facility, courtesy of the National Guestworker Alliance.