The Southern Poverty Law Center today sued one of New Orleans' wealthiest hotel owners on behalf of Latin American immigrants who were lured through false promises and charged thousands of dollars in fees to fill jobs held by New Orleanians prior to Hurricane Katrina.
"This lawsuit illustrates how U.S. businesses systematically recruit and exploit vulnerable immigrants to drive down wages and undercut worker rights," said Mary Bauer, director of the Center's Immigrant Justice Project, which is representing the workers. "These men and women were driven by economic desperation to leave their homes and come here in search of the American dream. But they were betrayed and now find themselves living a nightmare."
Filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on behalf 82 guest workers, the suit alleges Decatur Hotels, LLC and its president, F. Patrick Quinn III, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act when the company failed to reimburse workers for the exorbitant fees they paid to aggressive labor recruiters working as agents for the hotel chain. Decatur owns about a dozen luxury hotels in New Orleans and is one of the largest locally owned hotel chains in Louisiana.
To pay labor recruiters in their home countries, the workers from Peru, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic plunged their families into debt. Recruiters charged workers between $3,500 and $5,000 to take them to New Orleans under the federal government's H-2B guest worker program.
"Four thousand dollars is a lot of money in Peru," said Humberto Jimenez, one of the hotel workers. "I mortgaged my house to work for Patrick Quinn. I came here to make enough money to see my child through college. If I had known the truth I would never have come."
Recruiters under Quinn's employ promised workers 40 hours of work per week and plenty of overtime. Instead, they found themselves working about 25 hours a week, sometimes far less. Under current immigration law, they are bound to their employer and unable to legally work for anyone else.
"They're on a dead-end road," Bauer said. "Their profound debt makes them desperate to work -- but Decatur doesn't give them enough hours. And if they switch jobs, they're breaking the law. In effect, they are captive workers in a situation of virtual debt peonage."
Said Teresa Ortiz, another worker, "It's modern-day slavery. What are my options? I go home to Bolivia, poorer than when I got here and deeper in debt. Or I break the law to find another job."
Tracie Washington, a New Orleans civil rights attorney and co-counsel in the case, said, "This guest worker program is a continuation of the racial exploitation that began with slavery in this country. It's corporate-driven; Decatur profits from it. And it's state-sponsored; the Department of Labor signs off on it."
To recruit guest workers, Decatur had to certify to the U.S. government that it could not find U.S. workers to fill the jobs. Indeed, in its request for labor certification, Decatur claims to "have offered work to hurricane evacuees" but "no one applied."
In a recent meeting with Quinn, guest workers asked for proof Decatur recruited among African American Katrina evacuees.
"He said he would not give us proof," said Luis Chavez. "He has none. When I started work I said to my manager, 'This is New Orleans -- why are there no black people working here?' The manager said, 'Because black people don't like to work.' "
Saket Soni of the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, which is working with Center and the workers, called the guest worker program a "wedge policy" that divides African Americans and immigrants.
"At a time when the unemployment rate in the New Orleans metro area is 7.2 percent, these guest workers are lured here and locked into exploitation," Soni said. "Meanwhile, African American survivors are locked out of the hotel industry even as they struggle to return home and regain their lives a year after Katrina."
This competition over jobs is fueled by employers like Decatur and the government agencies failing to enforce labor laws.
"These courageous workers are exposing guest worker programs as an opportunity for predatory employers to seek out and exploit cheap labor," said Marielena Hincapie, director of programs at the National Immigration Law Center, which is also co-counsel in the case. As guest worker programs are increasingly seen as the answer to future migration, Hincapie cautioned against expansion of a historically flawed system.
"The solution is for all workers to be afforded decent work opportunities with a living wage in the just reconstruction of the Gulf South," said Washington.