Latino Workers in South Face Rampant Abuse

Key Finding: 41% of Respondents Say They Have Experienced Wage Theft

They come for the work.

They harvest onions in Georgia and pack tomatoes in Florida. They pour concrete in Charlotte and clean hotel rooms in New Orleans. In cities and small towns throughout the South, they wash dishes, mow lawns and slaughter chickens.

Latino WorkerThey do the hardest, most hazardous work for the least pay, fueling our economy and making products cheaper for all of us.

Yet when it comes to the workplace, Latino immigrants in the South take their chances.

With the influx of Latino labor in the South, what has emerged is a shadow economy where employers are keenly aware that immigrants — including those who are working here legally — are often ill-equipped to stand up for their rights.

The result is rampant wage theft, intimidation and unsafe working conditions. Government regulation does little to protect them.

For undocumented workers, the situation is particularly oppressive. Theoretically, they have the same legal protections in the workplace as documented workers. Yet unscrupulous employers use their immigration status against them, threatening to have them deported if they object to wage theft or working conditions.

This dire situation facing Latino immigrants is reflected in the survey responses:


  • Forty-one percent of those surveyed had experienced wage theft where they were not paid for work performed. In New Orleans, an astonishing 80 percent reported wage theft.

  • Most people surveyed (about 80 percent) had no idea how to contact government enforcement agencies such as the Department of Labor. Many respondents did not know such agencies even exist.

  • Overall, 32 percent of Latinos surveyed reported on-the-job injuries. Among those injured on the job, only 37 percent reported that they received appropriate treatment. The remainder of the Latinos who said they suffered on-the-job injuries reported that they were not paid for their lost wages, they did not receive medical care and/or they were fired because they were injured.

The danger immigrants face when they stand up for their rights was powerfully illustrated when an immigrant advocate in New Orleans told SPLC researchers what happened when one Latino worker attempted to collect wages from a contractor.

"The contractor raised his shirt and showed he had a gun — and that was enough," said Eva San Martin, an advocate working in New Orleans. "He didn't have to say any more. The worker left."

Beltran, a day laborer in Louisiana, said he carpeted 10 apartments and was never paid the $3,000 he was owed for the work. It wasn't the first time he had been cheated.

"This happens to everyone," he said. "The humiliation begins there. I know in this country you can defend your rights, but people are afraid of the police."

The SPLC survey found Latino immigrants were employed in a variety of labor-intensive fields. Construction was the leading industry employing them, with 17 percent of respondents, followed by factory work (11 percent), cleaning (10 percent) and restaurant work (9 percent).

Widespread Abuse in Wake of Katrina
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 created the ideal conditions for immigrant abuse as the cleanup and rebuilding effort drew thousands of migrant workers looking for employment. In the wake of the storm, the Crescent City quickly became home to a labor force eager to work but highly Workersvulnerable to exploitation.

A look at a few of the cases that have resulted in legal action provides a glimpse into the conditions many of these workers endured. They also are a reminder of the immigrants who are not so fortunate to find legal help and the countless instances of abuse that go unreported every day.

Latino immigrants were among the hundreds of workers restoring schools in New Orleans following Katrina. Despite their hard labor, many discovered they were frequently shortchanged on payday.

"When we weren't paid, we didn't even have money for food," said Sergio de Leon, who cleaned toxic mud and mold from St. Bernard Parish schools. "These companies are robbing us of our money after we worked so hard."

The SPLC filed a lawsuit against LVI Environmental Services of New Orleans, Inc., and its subcontractor, D&L Environmental, Inc. on behalf of these workers. The case has since been settled.

Latino immigrants also worked to restore key public services in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, including Tulane Hospital and Tulane University. They often worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to remove mold, mud and toxic contamination from the flooded buildings.

Workers employed by subcontractors of Belfor USA Group Inc. discovered they were not being paid the overtime wages they had earned. After the SPLC filed a lawsuit against Belfor on behalf of the workers, the company launched an internal investigation that found certain subcontractors had not appropriately paid overtime wages to their employees.

Belfor reached a settlement agreement in 2006 to ensure that hundreds of workers would receive the pay they earned.

Another group of immigrant workers were drawn to New Orleans to repair an apartment complex. They were promised a wage of at least $500 a week and an apartment at the Audubon Pointe apartment complex they were repairing. They arrived to discover they would be living in storm-damaged apartments and cheated out of wages. Their employer allegedly responded to complaints of nonpayment with threats of eviction and deportation.

"They said that we did not have rights in this country and that we had to shut up and continue working if we did not want problems," said Reyes Aguilar-Garcia, an Audubon Pointe worker, in an affidavit that's part of a lawsuit the SPLC filed against his employer.

Their apartments had holes in the walls or no finished walls, broken windows, smelly carpets and cockroaches. One worker shared a two-bedroom apartment with seven other workers. Despite these conditions, the fear of homelessness kept many workers from leaving.

"Without any money, Audubon Pointe was the only place we had to sleep, and we could not survive if we were to lose this housing, as bad as it was," Aguilar-Garcia said.

A federal lawsuit was filed in March 2008 on behalf of these workers by the SPLC, the Pro Bono Project and the National Employment Law Project. It alleges the employers violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Victims of Trafficking Protection Act. The case has since been settled and an agreement reached to pay the workers' wages.

Guestworkers Face Systematic Abuse
Having few opportunities in Peru, Humberto Jimenez jumped at the opportunity to earn money for his child's college education — even though it meant mortgaging his house.

A major hotel chain in New Orleans was looking for workers to fill jobs left empty after Hurricane Katrina. Labor recruiters promised 40 hours of work each week and plenty of overtime. Jimenez mortgaged his house in Peru to pay $4,000 in fees to a recruiter who helped him secure the job.

But the promises were not true. Many of the workers hired by the hotel chain found themselves working 25 hours a week or less. Jimenez couldn't make ends meet on what he earned — much less pay back the money he borrowed.

"Four thousand dollars is a lot of money in Peru," Jimenez said. "I came here to make enough money to see my child through college. If I had known the truth I would never have come."

Jimenez, who was in the country legally as a guestworker, could not get a second job or quit the job to find other work. That's because workers with H-2 guestworker visas for low-skill, seasonal jobs are bound to the employers who hire them under the program and cannot legally look for other work. They are often forced deeply into debt because of exorbitant fees charged by the recruiters who bring them to the United States. Accepting abuse and earning what little money is available is often seen as better than returning home with crushing debt and no earnings.

The SPLC documented widespread abuse in the H-2A and H-2B programs in its 2007 report, Close to Slavery. The report describes rampant wage violations, recruitment abuses, seizure of identity documents and squalid living conditions.

Under these conditions, it shouldn't be surprising to hear Latinos recounting stories of desperation, such as the one Berta of Oak Park, Ga., told for this report.

Berta was driving home from work one night when she saw two Latino men on the road looking for a ride. They were guestworkers who had escaped from their jobs. Their employer had threatened to fire them if they left the job site, an action that would cost them their visas and result in deportation.

The men risked an escape only because they weren't making enough money to live. The cold calculation for them was that it was better to become an undocumented immigrant than to work legally under their employer.

"Even though we don't have papers, [undocumented immigrants] are sometimes a little freer because we don't have to ask permission from the boss to be able to leave," Berta said. "In some ways, it's like [guestworkers] are prisoners, because they cannot leave and look for other work. They are here like slaves."

Workers in the field

South's Weak Labor Laws Key to Abuse
It is not surprising that workplace abuse flourishes in the South. The South has the weakest labor protections of any region in the United States. Every Southern state, for example, is a "right to work" state, making it harder for workers to unionize and collectively improve wages and working conditions.

Further, these Southern states do not have strong enforcement mechanisms to help workers assert their rights. While many states have vigorous state Departments of Labor, that simply is not the case for most states in the South. The result is that, given the failure of the federal government to protect them, workers in the South are largely without recourse when their rights are violated.

In examining one major industry that relies heavily on Latino migrant labor — agriculture — it is easy to understand why conditions for agricultural workers in the Southeast are considered the worst in the nation. State laws to protect farmworkers from abuse are appallingly weak, or nonexistent.

For example, farmworkers are not covered by workers' compensation laws in many of the Southern states.1 That means when farmworkers are injured on the job — and many are, given that it is one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. — they are routinely denied any benefits at all. And there is little or nothing they can do about it.

In addition, many state wage and hour laws, if they exist at all, exempt agricultural workers from their protection. In some states, farmworker children are even exempt from the state's compulsory education laws.2 And many state health and safety laws exclude farmworkers.3

These antiquated laws are vestiges of slavery. The farmworker population in the Southeast has always been composed principally of racial or ethnic minorities and has suffered shocking prejudice and oppression as a result. As one North Carolina grower summed up the situation: "The North won the War on paper but we confederates actually won because we kept our slaves. First we had sharecroppers, then tenant farmers and now we have Mexicans."4

The treatment in the fields described by one Latina is a sad confirmation of this attitude. Hilda, who has worked in the United States for eight years, described working in the fields of Georgia, where plants are covered in pesticides or even sprayed with pesticides as the workers harvest.

"There is no protection," Hilda said in an interview for this report. "A simple shirt, a bandana, no protection for the mouth or the nose — nothing. …When we ask for protection, they say there is none."

In the spring of 2008, the author interviewed numerous migrant tomato workers in Immokalee, Fla., and found them desperately poor, fearful of retaliation and lacking in the benefits most workers take for granted. These workers earned as little as 40 to 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they picked — or about $25 per ton.

The workers faced regular exposure to pesticides in the fields and chronic violations of wage and hour laws. As one worker said: "If you say something, they fire you."5

Farmworkers who try to stand up for their rights often find themselves frustrated by multiple layers of subcontractors and middlemen — an arrangement that seems designed to insulate corporations at the top from accountability for the mistreatment of workers. The same phenomenon was seen repeatedly in New Orleans with contractors working to clean up the city after Hurricane Katrina.

In southeast Georgia between 2003 and 2006, hundreds of Latinos — both foreign guestworkers and U.S.-based migrant laborers — toiled in onion fields controlled by Fresh Del Monte Produce (Southeast), Inc. a subsidiary of the food giant Fresh Del Monte Produce. They lived in Del Monte labor camps. They used Del Monte equipment. They were supervised by Del Monte employees.

The workers claim they were consistently cheated out of their pay. They contend hourly rates were sometimes wrong and that pay stubs frequently showed fewer hours than they actually worked. But the company claimed it wasn't responsible for shortchanging the workers — that it was the responsibility of an "independent" labor contractor. The SPLC brought suit against Del Monte and won a ruling that the labor contractor and the workers were really employees of the Del Monte subsidiary and that the company was indeed responsible for any wage abuses that could be proven.6

The federal ruling was an important milestone for workers, but the fact remains that most Latino farmworkers in the South have little or no access to legal representation.

Many low-income individuals across the U.S. rely upon legal services offices when they have legal problems. Unfortunately, many immigrants simply cannot do that. Federally funded legal services offices are prohibited from representing undocumented immigrants and many legal immigrants, as well.

Because there are few private lawyers or other nonprofits in the South willing to take cases on behalf of low-income immigrants, many people whose rights have been violated are left with no recourse whatsoever.

Suffering in Silence
Even if an immigrant is fairly paid by an employer, there's still the worry of how the employer will respond to an on-the-job injury or illness.

Miguel, a Latino in Georgia, described the ordeal his brother faced after he began having trouble with his back on the job. The supervisor told Miguel's brother there was nothing he could do since the Guatemalan was undocumented. Eventually, his supervisor agreed to take him to the hospital — on one condition. He had to tell hospital officials that the company found him on the side of the road, drunk and run over by a car.

It was a story that would completely disassociate the man from the company that had employed him for nearly two years.

In New Orleans, an advocate recounted the story of a Latino whose thumb was severed on the job. The worker was taken to the home of his employer's brother where he waited for four hours until he was taken to the hospital.

A Latina in Nashville described how she cut herself while cleaning a restaurant. Although she had seen managers take non-Latinos to the hospital, she was told they wouldn't take her. Even after receiving medical treatment, her employer refused to pay any of the cost. The injury has left her with limited mobility in her hand.

In 2004, an Associated Press investigation found that Mexican workers were about 80 percent more likely to die on the job than native-born workers. That figure translates to one Mexican worker a day dying on the job from accidental deaths; workers as young as 15 were "impaled, shredded in machinery, [and] buried alive."7

In the South, the rate of deaths for Mexican workers was 1 in 6,200 workers — more than double the national average for Mexican workers, the AP study found. The deadliest states were Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. The total deaths jumped from 27 in 1996 to 94 in 2002 — a more than three-fold increase.

Every day, the SPLC receives calls from workers who are not paid for work performed, illegally fired, or injured on the job and fired. Quite often, if the SPLC is unable to provide representation, there is no other legal recourse available. As a final resort, they are referred to the U.S. Department of Labor, even though it is highly unlikely they will ever see their lost wages.8

Berta, the Latina in Georgia, said the impact of workplace abuse, like being chronically exposed to pesticides, isn't fully realized while they still live in the United States. And the cost is not borne by the U.S. companies that employ them — or by the consumers who enjoy the products or services they produce.

"What happens is when we feel sick, we go back to our homeland, and that's where we die," Berta said. "The consequences are not seen here, they leave and they are seen in Mexico."


1. Employers in the following Southern states are not required to provide workers' compensation to their agricultural employees under most circumstances: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

2. Under Alabama Statute § 16-28-6(4), children who are legally employed under the state child labor code are not obligated to attend school. Because Alabama's child labor law (Ala. Stat. § 25-8-1) exempts agriculture, children employed in agriculture are not required to attend school in the state. In South Carolina, children as young as 12 can work legally in agriculture and can be exempted from attending school if they have finished the 8th grade (S.C. Code § 59-65-30(c)).

3. See, e.g., Ala. Code § 25-1-1; Ark. Code Ann. § 11-2-101; O.C.G.A. (Georgia) §§ 34-2-2, 34-2-10; La. R.S. § 23.13.

4. Charles D. Thompson Jr. and Melinda F. Wiggins, The Human Cost of Food: Farmworkers' Lives, Labor and Advocacy, University of Texas Press, 2002, p. 250.

5. See e.g., Testimony of Mary Bauer, Southern Poverty Law Center, before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, U.S. Senate, April 15, 2008, available at (detailing the abuses of migrant tomato workers and recommended remedies).

6. Luna v. Del Monte Fresh Produce (Southeast), Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21636 (N.D. Ga. Mar. 18, 2008)

7. Justin Pritchard, "AP Investigation: Mexican Worker Deaths Rise Sharply Even as Overall U.S. Job Safety Improves," The Associated Press, March 13, 2004.

8. See e.g. Testimony of the Southern Poverty Law Center before the Domestic Policy Subcommittee, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, June 26, 2007, available at (detailing the failure of the U.S. Department of Labor to deal with massive wage theft in post-Katrina New Orleans)

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/AP Images

Photo by Lowell Handler

Photo by Sarah Reynolds