SPLC reaches settlement with Gulf Coast seafood company in guest worker abuse case

A federal judge has approved a final settlement between the SPLC and R&A Oyster Company, a Gulf Coast seafood company that employed Mexican guest workers who claimed in the suit that they were underpaid.

U.S. District Judge William H. Steele incorporated the settlement in a final ruling that resolves the 2014 class action case. The terms of the agreement, which includes monetary and non-monetary elements, are confidential.

The resolution is a victory for a class of more than 50 guest workers.

“Employers who use the guest worker program make a very basic promise to pay fair, competitive wages,” said Meredith Stewart, SPLC staff attorney. “All workers in this country should be paid fair wages for a hard day’s work. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the law.”

In March, the judge ordered R&A Oyster to pay $30,000 in back wages to 18 guest workers who were paid below the minimum wage. The workers came from Mexico with the guarantee they would not be paid less than the federal minimum wage and the prevailing wage mandated by the H-2B program, which allows U.S. businesses to bring in foreign laborers for temporary work if they certify that they cannot fill the jobs with domestic workers.

After the SPLC lawsuit was filed, some of the plaintiffs – who shucked and processed oysters in Mobile County, Alabama – took action to withdraw from the suit when they were told they would no longer receive guest worker visas. Earlier, when R&A threatened to rescind employment offers, the court granted a protective order requiring the company to notify the affected plaintiffs that their future employment should not be threatened by their participation in the lawsuit. The judge issued a separate ruling in March that those workers who faced retaliation after suing the company can take action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Blacklisting is one of the most common forms of retaliation faced by guest workers when they attempt to defend their rights.

Even before they arrived at their jobs, the guest workers incurred expenses – such as the costs for visas and transportation from Mexico – that were never reimbursed by the company. They were also required to pay for their own equipment, including oyster knives, overalls, gloves and boots. As a result, their wages fell below the minimum pay required by the FLSA and allegedly below the mandatory wage for H-2B guest workers set by the federal government.

“We are glad that this case has been resolved,” Stewart said. “Wage theft and retaliation are unfortunately common in guest worker programs. Guest workers make important contributions to our economy, and we must ensure they are treated fairly and with the respect they deserve.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Alabama, Southern Division.