Mexican guest workers gain Walmart, federal response, Louisiana, USA, 2012

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Timing
Time Period:  
June
2012
to
June
2012
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana
Location Description: 
At work facilities, Walmart retailer, Walmart board member's home
Goals: 
For Walmart to end contract with crawfish supplier CJ Seafood and for workers to be compensated for work and abuse suffered.
 

The United States has a visa program called the H-2B visa. It allows employers to hire foreigners and let them come temporarily to work in the United States, usually for a one-time or peak load basis. This program has repeatedly been criticized for allowing employers to take advantage of guest workers, and in response, the U.S. Congress passed the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act in June of 2011. The act was supposed to give workers a voice when reporting abuses by curbing the fear of deportation and thus allows guest workers to organize with more safety and less fear of retaliation. However, this act has proven difficult to enforce.

The POWER Act and other measures were also supposed to improve working conditions for guest workers, including wage increases. Employers that use H-2 visas have complained to the federal government, claiming that the measures would severely harm their businesses and make H-2’s cheaper labor obsolete. Employers fought against Department of Labor (DOL) regulations from the beginning of the H-2 program.

CJ's Seafood, a crawfish processing firm, has used H-2 visas for many years, and plant manager Michael Leblanc -- also the leader of the Crawfish Processors Alliance in Louisiana -- has filed such a complaint in a suit against the Department of Labor. Many CJ's Seafood employees had worked at the facility for many years and had not worked for other employers in the US due to the provision that their employment on an H-2B visa is restricted to one employer and that employer can fire and deport them for almost any cause.

In 2012 CJ’s Seafood brought in 40 more guest workers from Mexico to work at its processing plant in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The workers in the Breaux Bridge plant had been experiencing abuse for years, and in 2012 the abuse was particularly bad in the January to July crawfish season.

Employees lived in small cramped trailers outside of the facility and their comings and goings were strictly monitored. Some employees were forced to work 24-hour shifts, beginning early in the morning and ending late at night without receiving overtime pay. In addition, the management reportedly verbally abused the workers and threatened the workers physically.

When one of the workers, Ana Rosa Diaz, contacted a labor advocacy group called the National Guestworkers Alliance (NGA), manager Leblanc threatened the wellbeing of the workers and their families, in the USA and Mexico, if they reported the abuse.

This threat of retaliation mobilized the workers with the support of the NGA. On 4 June, eight of the guest workers confronted CJ Seafood management and demanded that the abuses and threats be stopped. The management denied wrongdoing and the employees went on strike, leaving the facility.

Their case received national media attention because CJ Seafood’s main client was Walmart, the largest retail firm in the U.S. Walmart, in turn, had policies in place that claimed responsibility for the actions of their suppliers and guaranteed not to support forced labor or inhumane conditions.

The strikers then took their complaints to their local Walmart retailer, claiming that they were overworked, abused, and even forced to stay in the facilities under threat of violence. Walmart began an investigation after these allegations and the Department of Labor began its own investigations when the workers filed a complaint with them and a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, stating that other workers were not threatened, abused, and under-paid as they were.

The workers claimed that Walmart, with its policy of accountability, needed to cease using CJ’s Seafood and demanded reparations from the previous company. They publicized their story and started a signature gathering campaign that generated 150,000 supporters urging Walmart to support the workers.

On 30 June, the workers and their supporters held a small rally and 24-hour hunger strike outside of the apartment of Walmart board member Michele Burns in Manhattan. Later, based on investigations by the Worker Rights Consortium, Walmart announced that it had ceased purchasing crawfish from CJ’s Seafood.

On 24 July, the Department of Labor finished its investigation of CJ’s Seafood and fined the company approximately $460,000 in back-pay, safety violations, wage and hour violations, civil damages and fines for abuses to the H-2B program. The company has since shut down.

Other investigations by groups like the National Guestworkers Alliance has indicated that many other Walmart suppliers were committing workers’ rights violations and the CJ’s Seafood incident sparked a wave of protests, mainly in Southern California and Illinois, against Walmart and its suppliers. These protests are still ongoing.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Started investigations and movements against Walmart in Southern California and Illinois. These protests were ongoing as of December 2012.

Sources: 
Greenhouse, Steven. "C.J.'s Seafood Fined for Labor Abuses." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 July 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/25/business/cjs-seafood-fined-for-labor-abuses.html?_r=1>.

"How Guestworkers Fueled a National Movement Against Wal-Mart – YES! – 10-11-12." How Guestworkers Fueled a National Movement Against Wal-Mart – YES! – 10-11-12. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.guestworkeralliance.org/2012/10/how-guestworkers-fueled-a-national-movement-against-wal-mart-yes-10-11-12/>.

"Louisiana Government and Media Defend Immigrant Guestworker Exploitation and Abuse." The Institute for Southern Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.southernstudies.org/2012/06/louisiana-government-and-media-defend-immigrant-guestworker-exploitation-and-abuse.html>.

"New York Activist Calendar." Support Guest Workers on Hunger Strike to Protest Walmart Supplier |. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://nycal.mayfirst.org/node/6085>.

"Walmart Tries to Cover up Forced Labor – Daily Beast – 6/14/12." Walmart Tries to Cover up Forced Labor – Daily Beast – 6/14/12. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.guestworkeralliance.org/2012/06/walmart-tries-to-cover-up-forced-labor-daily-beast-61412/>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Christopher Capron, 11/11/2012