05/25/2006

Court Issues Order to Protect Center's Forestry Clients

A federal court in Tennessee this week issued an emergency protective order against Superior Forestry Service Inc. after its agent threatened to have two Mexican workers deported in retaliation for their participation in the Center's lawsuit against the company.

With a goal of reforming abusive employment practices rampant in the nation's forestry industry, the Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) has filed a class action against Superior and three other companies.

"We were pleased that the Court acted swiftly to head off the company's campaign of illegal intimidation and harassment," said IJP attorney Andrew Turner. "This is the second time in five months that a federal judge has had to order the forestry industry not to deploy bully tactics to prevent the Center's migrant worker clients from asking for payment of the minimum wage."

Throughout the South, men imported from foreign countries are doing backbreaking forestry work under the federal government's H-2B "guest worker" program. Denied the protection of the marketplace, many are modern-day indentured servants, bound to unscrupulous labor contractors who routinely exploit them.

Often forced to mortgage their homes to get here, the workers — primarily from Mexico and Central America — are systematically underpaid in jobs that are as dangerous as they are grueling. If they complain, they and their families risk physical retaliation and financial ruin.

Jose Ramon Sànchez Martìnez and his brother, Joan Michel Sànchez Martìnez, came to Tennessee to clear brush for Superior prior to timber harvesting. After telling IJP staff about problems they encountered, the two joined the lawsuit.

A few weeks later, they were forced to leave their home because they feared that either their crew leader or Superior's personnel manager would come to the house with immigration authorities in retaliation for their joining the case. The crew leader made a series of phone calls explicitly conveying this threat, they told the court.

Last fall, IJP attorneys won a protective order from a New Orleans federal court in another of its forestry class actions, this one on behalf of Guatemalan H-2B workers whose families endured a campaign of threats, intimidation and coercion.

"The fact that this industry routinely and predictably illegally retaliates against the most vulnerable workers in our nation underscores the courage of those workers who have dared to stand up for improved conditions and basic dignity," Turner said.