02/12/2010

SPLC Suit Wins $2.75 Million Settlement for Exploited Workers

COLUMBIA, Tenn. – In one of the largest settlements of its kind, an Arkansas forestry company has agreed to pay $2.75 million to settle the legal claims of foreign guestworkers who say they were cheated out of the wages they earned planting trees for the company.

Superior Forestry Service Inc.’s agreement to pay more than 2,200 guestworkers makes this one of the largest settlements ever reached under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the workers by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Farmworker Justice, the Legal Aid Justice Center and attorneys from two Chicago-based private law firms: Willenson Law, LLC and Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym. Superior Forestry is one of the largest forestry contractors in the United States.

The settlement received preliminary approval Thursday from U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. It is subject to final approval following a fairness hearing in March.

Tree planter
Throughout the South, men imported from foreign countries are doing backbreaking forestry work under the federal government's "guestworker" program. Denied the protection of the marketplace, these foreign workers are modern-day indentured servants, bound to unscrupulous labor contractors who routinely exploit them.

“Guestworkers are too often seen as disposable workers who can be cheated and exploited,” said Jim Knoepp, an attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “This settlement sends a powerful message that these workers have rights and that their employers will be held accountable.”

The company also agreed to abide by the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act to ensure workers are not cheated out of future wages. Superior’s guestworkers were recruited from Mexico and Central America to plant pine seedlings throughout the Southeastern United States. They entered the country legally under the H-2B guestworker visa program.

Once finalized, the settlement will end the lawsuit, which was filed in January 2006. During the lawsuit, Superior was held in contempt of court three times. The contractor was most recently held in contempt in July after a company labor recruiter showed up at a meeting in Mexico between plaintiff lawyers and workers interested in the lawsuit – violating a court order and intimidating workers who might join the lawsuit.

That incident led the court to punish Superior by barring it from presenting evidence to dispute the workers’ claims for damages.

The SPLC’s 2007 report Close to Slavery documents rampant wage violations, recruitment abuses, seizure of identity documents and squalid living conditions in the H-2B program. Guestworkers, whose visas do not allow them to change jobs, typically have little recourse if they are exploited.