12/05/2006

SPLC Wins Thousands for Southeastern Forestry Workers

In another victory for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP), a forestry company agreed to pay more than $200,000 to resolve claims that it systematically cheated and threatened workers.

Under the proposed settlement, which still must be approved by the court, Express Forestry Inc. of Leslie, Ark., will pay $220,000 to as many as 300 migrant workers who at one time worked for the company.

"This is a huge victory with respect to our goal of making sure the forestry industry starts treating workers fairly," said IJP director Mary Bauer. "These migrant workers have suffered unnecessarily, and we are extremely happy that they are finally going to see some justice."

The suit against Express was filed in April 2005, on behalf of three Guatemalan tree planters, Hugo Martin Recinos-Recinos, Pablo Recinos-Alvarado and Alberto Alvarado. Thousands of migrant workers like them have been systematically cheated by forestry companies in the South after being recruited as part of the H2-B "guest worker" program. The program allows U.S. companies to hire temporary foreign labor if they certify they cannot find Americans to take the jobs.

"Express cheated its workers," said Bauer. "Workers often had to leave the deed to their homes in Guatemala, and many paid extraordinary sums of money, sometimes $2,000, to get the job in the first place.

"When they arrived at their jobs they were paid less than minimum wage, didn't receive overtime pay and worked upward of 70 hours a week planting trees. They were essentially in a system of debt peonage."

The abuses were not limited to violations of federal wage and hour laws. The company also threatened workers in an attempt to intimidate them into withdrawing from the suit, which was given class-action certification in February. In November, a federal judge in New Orleans reprimanded the company for failing to provide documents sought by Center attorneys, saying Express "provided evasive, incomplete and, in certain instances, downright deceitful responses in the case."

Bauer said the case was important to the Center's work on behalf of forestry workers because it sends the message that companies that treat their employees illegally will have to face serious consequences.

The Center has two other forestry cases pending. Another, against Idaho-based Alpha Services LLC., was settled earlier this year.

As part of the settlement agreement with Express, the Center agreed to include a statement from the company in any written material announcing the settlement. The statement says the "defendants have stated that they decided to settle this case to avoid the costs and hassles of future litigation."

The settlement will be distributed to the original named plaintiffs in the case, 46 opt-in plaintiffs who joined the litigation and as many as 300 class members who worked for Express between April 1999 and April 2005.

Bauer said $135,000 will go to the 49 people who actively participated in the case and $75,000 will be distributed among the remaining class members.