KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – Seven former employees of a Tennessee sewing factory claim in court that the owner called in an immigration raid instead of handing over unpaid wages, and told them they would need to wear diapers to work because they weren’t allowed to use the restroom.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Knoxville federal court, the workers allege Tammy Walker, owner of American Made Apparel, violated federal human-trafficking laws while running her business like a sweatshop and exploiting their immigration status.
“Walker has told each of the plaintiffs in this case at various times that if they quit their jobs and found a new employer she would call [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on the plaintiffs’ new employer,” the complaint states. “As a result of these threats, the plaintiffs stayed employed longer with the defendant than they otherwise would have despite her failure to pay them their overdue wages.”
All of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are undocumented immigrants, according to the complaint. As a result of an ICE raid at the factory on Feb. 14, three of them were detained but then released on bond “pending further deportation proceedings.”
One employee, Paula Galindo San Pedro, claims she quit because Walker owed her $2,583 in unpaid wages. She came back to work a few days before the raid because Walker told San Pedro she would fully pay her if she returned, according to the lawsuit.
“The defendant called [ICE] on the plaintiffs and other undocumented workers at her factory in order to avoid having to pay these workers the long overdue wages that she owed them,” the complaint states.
Walker’s employees allegedly worked in horrendous conditions. The former workers claim the plant went unheated in winter and there was no air conditioning for the summer months.
“The defendant kept all of the doors of the factory including the emergency exits locked on both the inside and the outside except for the front door, which created a significant fire hazard,” the complaint stated.
And then there was the matter of using the bathroom. According to the complaint, Walker provided neither running water nor toilet paper.
“Workers were also often not permitted to use the restroom, and were told that they would need to buy diapers if they needed to go to the bathroom during their breaks,” the complaint states. “The defendant also told her employees that in addition to their other manual labor duties, they were required to clean the bathrooms themselves because she didn’t want to pay someone else to do it.”
Because there was no running water to clean the bathrooms, the workers collected rainwater for the task, according to the lawsuit.
Knoxville attorney Ben Houston II, who is representing the factory employees, said most of them are from Mexico and Guatemala.
“I think the current environment makes it easier to take advantage of undocumented workers because obviously they are more afraid to report things to authorities,” Houston said in a phone interview.
The sewing factory in Jacksboro, Tenn., was making materials for the U.S. Department of Defense, possibly sleeping bags, according to Houston.
While Walker deducted money for insurance and taxes from the employee’s wages, they claim she was not actually paying taxes or insurance. In total, the plaintiffs claim they are owed about $21,000 in unpaid wages.
In addition to the Victims of Trafficking Protection Act, the workers say Walker also violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Citing state law, they are also suing for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, fraud and conversion.
Courthouse News called eight phone numbers associated with Walker in attempts to speak to her about the complaint, but most of the calls were directed to intercept messages.
A Facebook message sent to a restaurant Walker is listed as owning also went unanswered Friday morning.
In early February, a local television station reported the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development was investigating Walker for failing to pay wages for weeks, which was allegedly causing her employees to lose their homes.
But Walker told ABC affiliate WATE that she has not violated any rules.
“If I owe someone money, I have never denied it, I have always paid it. There is nobody that I have never not paid,” she said.
The workers in Thursday’s lawsuit ask the court to award them unpaid minimum wages, overtime wages and punitive damages.
They also seek a certification that they are eligible for U-visas – a special visa created by the Victims of Trafficking Protection Act for victims of crimes who have helped or may help law enforcement detect and prosecute criminal activity.