06/09/2005

SPLC Lawsuits Seek Reform of Forestry Industry

With a goal of reforming the abusive employment practices of the nation's forestry industry, the Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) has filed three class action lawsuits.

The actions, filed in federal courts in Atlanta, New Orleans and El Dorado, Arkansas, were brought on behalf of migrant agricultural workers who were admitted to the United States to work under the 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.

The plaintiffs are indigent workers who left their homes and families, often risking their life savings on the venture. They perform arduous jobs that the timber contractors certify that American workers are unwilling to do. Workers 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.

"This industry is in rampant noncompliance with the law," she said. "I have never seen an industry where such wanton violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act are the norm."

Forestry is a big business nationally and is one of the largest industries in the South. The South now accounts for about 80 percent of all trees planted in the country.

The case filed Monday in Atlanta is Escolastico de Leon-Granados, et al. v. Eller and Sons Trees, Inc., et al. The two cases filed in April are Hugo Martin Recinos-Recinos, et al. v. Express Forestry Inc., et al., filed in Louisiana, and Federico Salinas-Rodriguez v. Alpha Services LLC., filed in Arkansas but moved to the federal court in Jackson, Mississippi, this week.

Eller and Sons, based in LaGrange, Georgia, is the largest forestry contractor in America. Express Forestry is an Arkansas-based forestry company doing business across the southeast. Alpha Services is an Idaho-based forestry corporation.

"It is an injustice what they do to us," said Federico Salinas-Rodriquez, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in Arkansas, through an interpreter. "We are doing this thinking of other people — of our children and our brothers so that they may have better luck with this work."