A federal judge has warned an Arkansas forestry company that he will rule against it if company representatives continue to intimidate workers interested in joining an SPLC class action lawsuit accusing the company of cheating foreign guestworkers out of pay.
U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. issued the warning to Superior Forestry Service Inc. as he held the company in contempt of court for a third time. Future misconduct, he said in the July 28 decision, will be met with the "ultimate sanction" of default judgment. Haynes also sanctioned the company by barring it from presenting evidence to dispute the workers' claims for damages.
Superior was held in contempt after a company labor recruiter showed up at a meeting in Mexico between plaintiff lawyers and workers interested in the lawsuit — violating a court order and ultimately intimidating workers who might join the lawsuit to recover unpaid wages.
"Superior has repeatedly shown they would rather push these workers into the shadows than defend their business practices in the light of a courtroom," said SPLC legal director Mary Bauer. "Fortunately, the court has shown it will not tolerate the company's attempts to bully workers who have joined or want to join the suit."
Superior has been held in contempt previously for failing to properly notify field supervisors of previous court orders, in effect allowing them to threaten guestworkers who might join the lawsuit. The company was also held in contempt for failing to immediately instruct employees about the provisions of a court order.
The SPLC lawsuit includes more than 2,000 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.
The SPLC has filed a number of lawsuits to stop the abuse of guestworkers. Its 2007 report Close to Slavery 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 case are the Immigrant Advocacy Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center and Farmworker Justice.