03/28/2008

Judge Grants Class Action Status to Forestry Guestworker Suit

A federal court in Columbia, Tenn., has granted class action status to a lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center helped bring against an Arkansas forestry company accused of cheating foreign guestworkers out of wages.

The certification means the case against Superior Forestry Service can be litigated on behalf of about 3,000 guestworkers believed to be among the employees cheated by the company. Without the certification, the lawsuit would only benefit the workers named as plaintiffs in the case.

The lawsuit alleges the company took advantage of the workers and systematically cheated them out of wages. The workers, who were from Mexico and Central America, legally entered the country on H-2B guestworker visas to plant tree seedlings for the company.

"This ruling allows us to get justice for the thousands of workers who came to this country simply looking for the opportunity to better themselves, but were taken advantage of by this company," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "It's also a warning to other companies who think they can take advantage of guestworkers because of their vulnerability."

U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. also ruled that the statute of limitations in the case will be six years, not the three years sought by Superior, which would have limited the number of guestworkers able to join the lawsuit.

"These abuses show the Department of Labor is not protecting workers from bad employers," said Marni Willenson, an attorney at Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C., who is counsel in the case. "We are glad the court certified a case that illustrates the broad problems in guestworker programs."

Also serving as legal counsel in the case are Farmworker Justice and the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers as well as the law firms of Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick and Dum, and Bell, Tennent and Frogge.