NASHVILLE (CN) - Landscaping companies that won millions of dollars in state contracts and "stimulus loans" hired Mexican workers, confiscated their visas and passports, put them to forced labor, stashed them in inhumane labor camps controlled by armed supervisors, 15 workers say in Federal Court.
The workers say defendant Vanderbilt Landscaping received "close to a million dollars in stimulus loans designated for job creation and ... over $2 million in state contracts," then "subjected them to a scheme of constant surveillance, threats of serious harm and abuse of the legal process, and psychological coercion. These actions were taken to main control over the foreign guestworkers."
The H-2B guest-workers accuse Vanderbilt Landscaping, Onesource Landscape and Golf Services, and ABM Industries of human trafficking, slavery, civil rights violations, labor law violations, fraud, breach of contract, violations of the Tennessee Whistleblower Statute, retaliatory discharge, violations of the Klux Klan Act, false imprisonment and outrage.
They also sued Larry Vanderbilt Sr., CEO of the landscaping company, and his son, Joffrey Vanderbilt.
The Vanderbilts and their company are not affiliated with Vanderbilt University, which is in Tennessee, according to the 37-page complaint.
Many of the workers were earning $6 a day in tobacco fields in Mexico before they were hired as guest-workers on the H-2B visa program. They spoke little English.
Onesource Landscape and Golf Services, now called ABM Services, hired them in 2009 to work on Tennessee Department of Transportation highway mowing and litter removal contracts.
Larry Vanderbilt Sr. was vice-president of Onesource Landscape and Golf Services in 2009.
In 2010, Larry Vanderbilt and Joffrey Vanderbilt, through Vanderbilt Landscaping, received a $900,000 loan through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the complaint states.
"From at least 2009 to present, defendant Vanderbilt Landscaping LLC has held over $2 million dollars in contracts with the Tennessee Department of Transportation for highway mowing and litter removal contracts on Tennessee's highways and interstates," according to the complaint.
Vanderbilt Landscaping also brought in guest workers in 2010.
Under the H2-B program, "the foreign worker is bound to the sponsoring employer and if the employer terminates the employment relationship - even illegally - the worker loses his legal status to work or remain in the United States," the complaint states.
The Vanderbilts sent the plaintiffs and other workers to its labor camps in Mason and Smyrna, Tennessee.
According to the complaint: "The Vanderbilt defendants required the 2010 plaintiffs to live in inhumane and surveilled housing and attempted to prohibit the 2010 plaintiffs from leaving the labor camp property unless they were accompanied by a supervisor. ...
"Recognizing that the cruelty of these conditions would drive the guestworkers to seek to escape, Vanderbilt Landscaping LLC CEO Larry Vanderbilt confiscated the guestworkers' passports and visas.
"In addition to holding their passports and visas, Vanderbilt Landscaping forced the guestworkers to live on property it controlled, prohibited workers from leaving the property except when accompanied by a supervisor, and threatened the workers with unlawful arrest, eviction, and deportation. To the guestworkers, the visible firearms Vanderbilt managers carried and handled publicly enforced the state of constant surveillance and terror.
"The Vanderbilt defendants also took advantage of the rules of the H-2B guestworkers program - which render guestworkers completely dependent on their sponsoring employer for legal status and employment - to further coerce and threaten the guestworkers.
"The guestworkers were increasingly terrified and trapped in a situation of forced labor. They had no choice but to continue laboring on the Vanderbilt defendants' Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) contracts in illegal conditions, even though they wanted to escape or change the conditions of forced labor. Deep in debt for the visa, transportation, and recruitment costs and without their passports, the guestworkers could not leave and return to Mexico. At the same time, they faced threats and humiliation when they attempted to improve the conditions of forced labor.
"When a small group of workers did begin to voice complaints, resist the forced labor, and attempt to change the conditions, the retaliation was swift. The Vanderbilt defendants conducted a forced private deportation of plaintiff Jose Manuel Guerrero Gomez, sending a clear message to the rest of the workforce. Plaintiffs Hilario Razura Jimenez and Refugio Castellon Luna escaped to avoid a similar fate."
Two plaintiffs say the Vanderbilts retaliated against them for educating guestworkers about their legal rights.
When the Vanderbilts found out that the workers had contacted a human trafficking hotline, and were documenting their conditions, they interrogated the men, the complaint states.
"During the time of the interrogations, another Vanderbilt Landscaping LLC manager took out a firearm and cocked it above his head in front of the guestworkers after work in front of the Vanderbilt defendants' office," the complaint says.
The Vanderbilts interrogated Jose Manuel Guerrero Gomez in particular, and threatened to deport him and burn his passport, the complaint states: "Plaintiff Guerrero Gomez understood this as a threat of permanent blacklisting from the H-2B program.
Eventually, Larry Vanderbilt Jr. drove Plaintiff Guerrero Gomez back to the labor camp, instructed him to pack his belongings, took him back to the office, and then to the bus station. During that time the Vanderbilt defendants unlawfully and unreasonably detained plaintiff Guerrero Gomez against his will and consent and he was not free to leave.
"At the bus station, Larry Vanderbilt Jr. walked with Mr. Guerrero Gomez to the ticket counter standing in close physical proximity, and directed plaintiff Guerrero Gomez to purchase a ticket to Mexico. He stood in close proximity monitoring the ticket purchase. ... Plaintiff Guerrero Gomez had no choice but to purchase the ticket with money from his final paycheck.
"Larry Vanderbilt Jr. remained at the bus station in close proximity to Mr. Guerrero Gomez until plaintiff Guerrero Gomez boarded the bus to Mexico. Plaintiff Guerrero Gomez could see that Larry Vanderbilt Jr. remained at the bus station as the bus pulled away."
The complaint adds: "The Vanderbilt defendants deliberately conducted this retaliatory private deportation in front of the rest of the guestworkers to additionally force them to remain working in a situation of forced labor without trying to improve the conditions or escape."
That night, lead plaintiff Hilario Razura Jimenez escaped, "fearing that he would also be targeted for a private deportation for his actions, including seeking out information on U.S. laws protecting workers, educating other guestworkers about their legal rights, documenting illegal conditions, and contacting the U.S. Department of State's human trafficking hotline from the brochure he received at the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey."
The workers also say they were not paid for all of the hours they worked, as promised in their work contracts. They were charged rent to live in trailers and houses that "were overcrowded, unsafe and violated labor camp standards."
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