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SPLC reaches $2.3 million settlement in wage theft case on behalf of resort workers

A luxury golf resort in South Carolina will pay $2.3 million to resolve an SPLC lawsuit filed on behalf of Jamaican guest workers who claimed they were systematically cheated out of their wages.

The agreement, which will benefit more than 240 workers, was reached with the Kiawah Island Inn Golf Resort, a luxury resort near Charleston that has earned accolades from travel publications and hosted the 2012 PGA Championship. A federal judge granted preliminary approval to the agreement in June.

“We are pleased to have reached an agreement that will compensate these workers for their losses,” said Jim Knoepp, SPLC senior attorney. “When workers use our nation’s guest worker program, they expect that a very basic promise will be upheld: They will be paid the wages they earn.”

The SPLC filed the class action lawsuit in March 2015 on behalf of workers brought to the resort from Jamaica on H-2B guest worker visas to work as housekeepers, servers, bell persons and in similar positions from 2012 through 2014. The suit alleged that they were improperly charged hundreds of dollars in recruitment fees and forced to pay excessive housing and transportation costs that pushed their wages below the minimum required under the H-2B guest worker program.

The federal program allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers only when they certify that they cannot find enough local workers to fill their needs. Employers are required to pay a “prevailing wage” that the U.S. Department of Labor has determined will not have an adverse impact on U.S. workers.

The settlement is the latest in a string of successful SPLC lawsuits seeking to reform the program and protect the rights of vulnerable guest workers, who are not permitted to change jobs if they are abused and who often are forced to pay exorbitant fees to labor recruiters and for housing once they arrive. The Department of Labor supervises the program but provides extremely limited oversight of H-2B employers and recruiters.

The SPLC documented rampant abuses within the program in its report Close to Slavery. It found that guest workers are routinely subjected to human trafficking, cheated out of wages and held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents.

Editor's note: The $2.3 million agreement reached by SPLC and Kiawah Island Inn Golf Resort was given final approval by a federal judge in December.