After another week of backbreaking, 12-hour days of raking pine straw and suckering tobacco in the hot sun, Esperanza awoke one night to the sound of Carlos, her boss, banging on the outside door of the dilapidated trailer she called home.
When she opened the door, he came in yelling aggressively. He insulted her and the other female workers who were trying to sleep in the trailer. Carlos made a motion as if he would unbutton his pants and asked Esperanza if she wanted to touch his private parts – to determine if they were “large or small.” Then, he pulled out a gun and started waving the weapon in Esperanza’s face.
One of Carlos’ family members, who worked for the same company in the remote fields of Georgia, took the gun away while others who came to the trailer amidst all the chaos took him outside.
The SPLC is representing Esperanza and two other migrant workers in an administrative complaint against their employer, a south Georgia contracting company. The complaint alleges that the three immigrants left their hometown in Nayarit, Mexico, in July 2018, expecting to work in the blueberry harvest. But when they arrived in Georgia, they were forced to work instead in tobacco and pine straw, requiring them to lift and carry heavy bales.
All three reported various problems with their work situation, including high recruitment fees, illegal pay deductions, meager wages, dangerous working conditions, and visa fraud.
Under the nation’s guest worker program, U.S. employers recruit more than 200,000 foreign workers each year to perform temporary, low-skill labor in farming, forestry, seafood-processing, landscaping, tourism, construction and other labor-intensive industries. The workers, mostly from Latin America, are systematically exploited and abused by labor recruiters and employers.
“Esperanza’s case is a prime example of the way that guest worker programs allow employers to treat workers like personal property that they can abuse on a whim,” said Norma Ventura, a law fellow with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “Instead of being treated like ‘guests,’ these workers are bound like indentured servants to the employers who bring them to the United States, because they are not authorized to work for anyone else. Many of them are forced to live in substandard housing and are grossly underpaid for their efforts. Some of them, like Esperanza, are even physically assaulted and sexually abused.”
Esperanza told her story earlier this month at a convention of guest worker women in Washington, D.C., that was geared toward advancing gender equity in labor migration.
“I do not want other workers to have to go through what I have suffered here in the U.S., where I was brought under false pretenses, cheated out of my rightful pay, overworked, and sexually harassed,” Esperanza said. “I am afraid that if Carlos and his company bring other workers here, they will suffer the same fate that we did. That’s why I am speaking out now.”
The trailer incident was the last straw in a string of abuses that Esperanza, her cousin Valentina, and Juan – who had all traveled from Mexico to do agricultural labor on temporary H2A “guest worker” visas – would endure. The women called police the next day, and filed a police report. Their names and others in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
Additionally, Esperanza and Valentina told the SPLC that Carlos sexually harassed them on several occasions, including that last time with the gun. On at least one occasion, he also slapped Juan.
At various times, the complaint alleges, Carlos threatened to physically harm any worker who left without paying the recruitment fees he claimed they owed to him. He said he knew a lot of people who would find them and bring them back, and that he himself would kill them. He threatened to report them to immigration officials.
All three individuals are pursuing legal action.
Recruited to work in America
Esperanza, a widow and mother of three, heard about the job opportunity in America from a friend of hers. The friend, Emma, is Carlos’ niece. Emma told Esperanza that she was planning to travel to the U.S., and that she planned to work for her Uncle Carlos there.
However, Esperanza’s parents did not want her traveling alone, so she convinced her cousin Valentina, a single mother, to come with her. The women agreed to leave their children with their parents in Mexico. Both are from a small town in Nayarit.
Carlos told Esperanza over the phone that he would pay the 3,800 pesos (about $200) for the visa, but he added that Esperanza and Valentina would have to reimburse him. Esperanza and Valentina traveled from Nayarit to Guadalajara, and then to Monterrey.
While in Monterrey, a man who said he worked for a company that is contracted by U.S. companies assisted them with their visa processing and interviews at the consulate. He gave them a sheet of paper with questions and answers for them to study.
The sheet instructed the workers, among other things, to tell consulate officials that they had been contracted to harvest blueberries, and that they would earn $10.95 per hour. The company agent took money from them for transportation and also charged them $50 for his services.
Valentina told the SPLC that there were hundreds of other workers with them in Monterrey, waiting to process their visas to work for companies in the U.S. One of those workers was Juan, who had also traveled from the same small town in Nayarit, Mexico. He had paid the 3,800 pesos for his visa. Valentina did not know whether all of the workers there that day were coming to work for the same company, but the SPLC has learned that the company’s job order was for around 300 people.
The group received their visas and were taken to a ranch in Willacoochee, Georgia. There, individuals who never identified themselves told the migrants they would be working with Carlos.
Carlos told the workers that each of them owed him $1,800 for having brought them to the U.S. on a visa. He further explained that this fee was payable in installments, and that he would deduct $100 from each of their paychecks every week.
The workers learned that Carlos had paid another man, Roberto, who also purportedly worked for the company, for their visas. However, Roberto’s name was not listed on the job order as their employer. Instead, Roberto’s daughter-in-law, Julia, was listed as the employer. Roberto had been banned from bringing in workers, possibly because of previous allegations of worker abuse.
The SPLC’s investigation revealed that Roberto, despite not being listed as a supervisor, recruiter, or employer anywhere on the job order, largely controlled the operations of the company and the workers it brought under the job order. The situation demonstrates the lack of government oversight to confirm that the person who claims to be the employer is the one who actually controls the work operations.
After Esperanza, Valentina and Juan reported Carlos to police, Roberto came to the trailer where Esperanza and Valentina were living to offer them and Juan a different job because, he said, he did not want any trouble for his company. He told the workers that if they worked for anyone else they would have to pay him $3 for every hour they worked for the other employer.
Harsh work and deplorable housing
For their first two days on the job in the U.S., Esperanza and Valentina were pruning out unproductive tobacco leaves. The rest of the time they worked in pine straw. They were taken to remote locations, where they worked in pine forests, raking pine straw and then feeding it through a baling machine.
Carlos left them alone in these remote locations with no access to food, water, bathrooms or shelter during the day. They got soaked when it rained, and they were constantly having to kill snakes. When they complained, Carlos made fun of them.
He told them that he rented the property, paid them to harvest the pine straw, and then sold the pine straw to landscapers, who used it as mulch. When they worked in pine straw, the women were paid $1 per bale, which they would then have to split between themselves. The women would receive as little as $25 each for two 12-hour days. They never earned enough to begin paying off the $1,800 recruiting expense because of all the other fees – including rent – they had to pay Carlos.
On their second day in Georgia, Valentina was bitten by a spider at the trailer. She started having breathing problems, her lips turned purple, and she began to vomit. Carlos made fun of her and asked if she was pregnant, but eventually took her to the hospital. She was admitted for several days. There, she learned that the spider was poisonous. She currently has a $9,000 hospital bill. Carlos did not provide workers’ compensation insurance.
The housing conditions were equally deplorable. The women lived with six to eight other people in a trailer that Carlos provided. The trailer had no air conditioning or hot water. What’s more, Carlos told them he did not own the trailer and that he had to pay rent to the owner. He collected $35 a week in rent from each worker who lived there.
The employment was also drenched in gender inequities. Not only were the women subject to unwanted sexual touching and gestures, they were also given the lowest paid employment because they were women. The men who worked for Carlos got better jobs that paid more. The men worked in tobacco, while the women did the harder labor in pine straw. Carlos told the women that the men had families to support, and that’s why they needed better jobs that paid more.
More threats and sexual harassment
The incident with the gun was not the only one in which the women were sexually harassed. In another incident, Valentina said, Carlos put his arms around her waist and pressed up against her as she was coming out of the bathroom at the trailer. She screamed and elbowed him, allowing her to escape. In another incident, Carlos attempted to force Esperanza into the bathroom.
Esperanza still has trouble sleeping and becomes distressed when she remembers the gun incident. She mostly thinks of her three children in Mexico. She thinks about what would have happened if Carlos had killed or injured her: Her children would not have any parents.
The SPLC will continue to represent the interests of guest workers who are abused under the restrictive H2A visa system.
“Guest worker programs give employers all the power in the employer-employee relationship,” Ventura said. “Those workers who complain about abuse are often fired, and consequently they lose the visa that the employer provided, which means they no longer have guest-worker status. We are working to support guest workers like Esperanza in their fight for a dignified workplace, one that is free from abuse.”
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images