09/08/2006

Forestry Workers Get Justice with Settlement of SPLC Lawsuit

An Idaho-based forestry company doing business across the South will pay substantial damages and enact far-reaching reforms to bring its work practices into compliance with the law under a settlement agreement in a Center lawsuit.

The settlement in the class action, Salinas-Rodriguez v. Alpha Services LLC, approved by a federal judge on Tuesday, is a major victory in the Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) campaign to rid the forestry industry of rampant exploitation of workers. Cases against three other companies are pending.

The plaintiffs are indigent immigrants who left their homes and families in Latin America, often spending their life savings or mortgaging their homes, to come to this country under the federal H-2B guest worker program. They perform arduous jobs that the forestry contractors certify to the government that American workers are unwilling to do.

Workers routinely log 60 or more hours each week but earn substantially less per hour than the prevailing wage employers are required to pay under the H-2B program. 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. "I have never seen an industry where such wanton violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act are the norm."

The South is the largest timber-producing region in the country, accounting for more than 60 percent of all the nation's timber harvest.

The Alpha settlement is a package of agreements that provide safeguards for current and future workers. In addition to paying the plaintiffs and class members large sums of money, which remain undisclosed under the terms of the settlement, Alpha agreed to:

  • Enter into a consent decree ensuring compliance with the federal laws that protect migrant workers;

     

  • Provide IJP with complete access to Alpha's files, workers and supervisors to conduct periodic audits of the company's compliance with the law;

     

  • Not require workers to surrender their passports or other identification documents to the company or its agents;

     

  • Not require deeds, deposits or collateral of any kind as a condition of employment; and,

     

  • Not retaliate against the plaintiffs in any way.

When notice of the settlement agreement reached former Alpha workers in Ecuador, they wrote to thank the IJP staff. "Our dreams and aspirations were frustrated," they said. "We had big debts due to what was proposed to us did not emerge. On the contrary, they exploited us and we acquired losses.

"For this reason we want to emphasize that your help is uplifting for us who found ourselves without hope."