02/01/2006

Forestry Lawsuit Gets Class Action Status, Protective Order

NEW ORLEANS -- A federal court this week granted class action status to a Center lawsuit seeking reform of abusive employment practices that are rampant in the nation's forestry industry.

That means the Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) can continue to litigate on behalf of hundreds of migrant agricultural workers who were legally admitted to the United States to work under a temporary foreign worker visa program. Brought from Mexico and Guatemala, the workers plant pine trees in the southeastern states, the nation's largest timber-producing region.

Last week, the court issued a protective order against the lawsuit defendant, Express Forestry Inc., to stop its agents from engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation and coercion begun in mid-September against plaintiffs' family members in Guatemala.

A delegation of seven individuals, including an Express Forestry manager, confronted the wife and sister of Hugo Martin Recinos, lead plaintiff in the case, seeking contact information for him. They attempted to bribe his wife, Maria, by offering more than $6,600 in return for his withdrawal from the case.

At a November 30 hearing here on IJP's motion for emergency protection, Maria testified that the men indicated that her husband's continued participation in the lawsuit could pose a problem for his future employment in the U.S. and could result in family members being deported, jailed or even killed.

Both Maria and Hugo's sister, Amparo, traveled from their remote village in Guatemala's highlands to testify at the hearing here. IJP also provided the court 11 affidavits from others in Guatemala who witnessed intimidation by Express Forestry's agents.

The protective order, issued by U. S. Magistrate Judge Daniel E. Knowles III, prevents Express Forestry's communications not only with the IJP's current clients and their families, but all potential class members.

The lawsuit, Hugo Martin Recinos-Recinos, et al. v. Express Forestry Inc., et al., is one of four similar cases brought by IJP on behalf of indigent workers who left their homes and families, often risking their life savings on the venture. They do backbreaking work, a job that the timber contractors certify that American workers are unwilling to do.

Tree planters routinely work 60 or more hours each week but earn substantially less than the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. They are not paid overtime and often have to pay for their own work tools, visas and travel expenses, in violation of the law.

"Because of language barriers and their vulnerable status under immigration laws, these workers may be the most exploited in the nation," said IJP director Mary Bauer.