09/16/2008

Forestry Company Held in Contempt for Misconduct in SPLC Lawsuit

An Arkansas forestry company accused of cheating its foreign guestworkers out of their wages has been held in contempt of court for allowing supervisors to threaten workers and spread misinformation about a class action lawsuit filed on the workers' behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. ordered Superior Forestry Service Inc. to pay for television and radio announcements informing workers of their right to join the case without suffering any retaliation from their employer.

The judge found that Superior failed to properly notify field supervisors of previous court orders, allowing these supervisors to threaten guestworkers who might join the lawsuit seeking to recover unpaid wages.

"These workers know very little about our legal system, and Superior clearly tried to take advantage of that," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "This decision sends a clear message that these guestworkers cannot be harassed into giving up their legal rights."

The SPLC lawsuit includes about 2,500 past and current guestworkers who were recruited from Mexico and Central America to plant pine seedlings for Superior. They entered the country legally under H-2B guestworker visas.

"This ruling is a victory for guestworkers who face routine exploitation at the hands of employers who treat them like disposable workers," said Marni Willenson, an attorney with Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C., who is counsel in the case.

The SPLC has filed a number of lawsuits to stop the abuse of guestworkers. In March 2007, the SPLC issued a groundbreaking report, Close to Slavery, about the widespread, systematic abuses they face. The report documents rampant wage violations, recruitment abuses, seizure of identity documents and squalid living conditions. Guestworkers, whose visas do not allow them to change jobs, typically have little recourse if they are exploited.

Also serving as legal counsel in the Superior case are the Immigrant Advocacy Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center and the law firms of Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick and Dum, and Bell, Tennent and Frogge.