PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Twenty-four migrant workers say a farm labor contractor recruited them for a job where they were grossly underpaid, forced to live in "filthy, overcrowded," vermin-infested trailers, and threatened with deportation if they tried to leave. They sued International Personnel Resources and the estate of its deceased owner, alleging human trafficking, forced labor and other federal violations.
The workers, from Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico, claim that International and its deceased owner Michael Glah preyed upon their "fear, poverty and isolation," and falsely promised to get extensions on their visas, in order to maintain "a steady labor force" for a forestry company.
The workers say that International obtained H-2B visas for them to work in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in 2008, and that they had to take out "loans in their home countries to cover travel and other costs related to coming to the United States."
The workers are all primarily Spanish-speaking; one is deaf.
International "told the workers that they had to remain in the United States during the winter and work for a forestry company in the 'South,'" claiming it was "the only way that they could get H-2B 'extensions' to return to work with their employers in the Northeast the next year," according to the complaint.
Some workers say International promised them that with the extensions they could remain in the United States for three years. The workers say they had to pay $650 for the visa extensions, which was deducted from their pay.
In December 2008 they were sent to Mississippi to work for a forestry company. "When the workers arrived in Mississippi, the forestry company initially housed the workers in filthy, overcrowded trailers," according to the complaint. There were two to three bedrooms in each trailer for 15 to 30 workers, most of whom had to sleep on the floor. The trailers lacked furniture, adequate kitchen, toilet and showers, and were "infested with insects, rodents and other vermin."
International had promised the workers pay of $8.50 to $12.93 per hour, but instead paid them $35 for each 1,000 pine saplings they planted, but not for loading the plants, for travel time, or overtime, according to the complaint.
The forestry company took unlawful deductions from their pay, and did not explain the deductions, the workers say.
The workers say they "sometimes were unable to cash their checks and were told that this was because the forestry company had insufficient funds in its account," and they were not always paid on the designated payday.
International, Glah and the forestry company told the workers that if they left, they would "lose their winter and spring 2009 H-2B extensions to work in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which constituted the workers' primary means of livelihood," the complaint states.
"Furthermore, when the workers inquired about the extensions or complained to a manager of the forestry company about the company's failure to fulfill the promises it made to them in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the manager told the workers that he would contact immigration enforcement authorities if the workers attempted to leave, would cancel their extensions or have them deported, and insisted that immigration enforcement authorities would catch the workers and deport them if they left without the extension documents."
The defendants never did get the visa extensions for the workers, though it charged them for it, the complaint states. It adds that International had never obtained authorization from the U.S. Department of Labor "to perform farm labor contracting activities such as recruiting or furnishing agricultural workers."
"As a result of this scheme, the forestry company was able to maintain a steady labor force of workers who could not leave despite terrible working conditions," the complaint states.
Glah died at home at 48, while "awaiting sentencing on federal charges of fraudulently obtaining hundreds of temporary-worker visas for undocumented workers," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in August this year.
The workers demand damages from International and from Glah's estate for violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Acts, and for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation.
Their lead counsel is Arthur Read with Friends of Farmworkers.
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