Skip to comments.Legal immigrants accuse nursery of forced labor
Posted on 02/09/2007 8:33:21 AM PST by Graybeard58
NEW HAVEN -- A dozen Guatemalan workers filed a federal lawsuit Thursday accusing one of the nation's largest nurseries of engaging in human trafficking by forcing them to work nearly 80 hours per week, paying them less than minimum wage and denying them medical care for injuries on the job.
The workers, who filed the lawsuit against Imperial Nurseries in Granby and its labor recruiter, say they were promised jobs planting trees in North Carolina for $7.50 per hour. Instead, they say they were taken in a van to Connecticut without their consent, had their passports confiscated so they would not escape and were threatened with arrest or deportation.
"These workers came here lawfully to earn a living and support their families," said Nicole Hallett, a Yale Law School student helping the workers.
"Instead they were defrauded and trapped into conditions of forced labor."
Griffin Land & Nurseries, parent company of Imperial, said the workers were hired by Pro Tree Forestry Services, an independent labor contractor Imperial had retained. Griffin said it cooperated with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.
"The DOL later advised Imperial that they were satisfied over the Pro Tree workers' living conditions and transportation and found no basis for the human trafficking allegations," the company said.
Labor officials did advise Imperial that some Pro Tree employees were not being paid the legally required wage. Imperial terminated its contract with Pro Tree on June 30, the company said.
"Imperial was appalled to hear that Pro Tree was not paying its employees appropriately, because it paid Pro Tree well in excess of what they would need to pay their employees in compliance with applicable law," the company said. "In addition, Imperial offered to give the DOL the final payment Imperial owed to Pro Tree so that DOL could pay these Pro Tree workers directly."
The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating the allegations, a spokesman said. Telephone messages were left for Pro Tree, which is also named in the lawsuit.
The workers say in the lawsuit that they were afraid to talk freely to labor investigators because of the threats of deportation and arrest.
Imperial's sales volume places it among the 20 largest landscape nursery growers in the country, according to the lawsuit.
The workers were recruited last spring and early summer, according to the lawsuit, which accuses the defendants of engaging in human trafficking and a pattern of racketeering.
The workers were paid about $3.75 per hour but also incurred substantial, illegal deductions which further reduced their wages, according to the lawsuit. The workers also incurred substantial debts in Guatemala to pay for their visas and trip to the U.S., according to the lawsuit.
Some of the workers flew to North Carolina, then were taken to Hartford in a small van. Some were forced to sit on the floor during the trip. When they arrived, they were housed in small filthy apartments and slept on the floors, according to the lawsuit.
The work involved preparing flowers, trees, shrubs and other plants to be sold to residential and wholesale consumers.
"I started to think the United States wasn't America but rather Egypt, a place of slavery," Marvin Coto, one of the workers, said through a translator.
Coto said he was forced to work in the fields in the rain when he had a severe fever. Other workers suffered back injuries.
"I got tremors from the fever, I'm shaking from the fever," Coto said.
"I started crying and said you should let me go free. Every day they forced us to do more and more work. Our hands began to get swollen and they laughed at us and said you can keep working."
Coto, 33, said he eventually took refuge in a church, while other workers fled. Instead of sending money home, the workers said they wound up begging their relatives to send them money.
"My children in Guatemala didn't even have bread to eat," Coto said.
The lawsuit seeks back pay and damages.
Pro Tree employees opened the workers' mail, prohibited them from riding city buses and restricted their travel, the lawsuit alleges.
The workers also say they were subject to verbal abuse, including being called "indios", a racial epithet used to describe indigenous people of Guatemala.
The lawsuit contends the defendants knew or should have known that the labor contractor employed such techniques.
Man, I hope those guys at Imperial go down for that.
"The lawsuit contends the defendants knew or should have known that the labor contractor employed such techniques."
That looks pretty flimsy to me.
I was picturing infants on assembly lines. *pounds head on desk*
I'm not surprised. I worked on a large farm where everyone pretty much was an immigrant. They tried to dick me over on so many things because they were so used to getting away with treating the immigrants poorly that they thought they could do it to me too.
The first day I was there, I worked a 17 hour day so that by the time I got home, I had 5 hours until I had to leave to go back and work for 12 more hours.
They used their agricultural exemption to avoid paying overtime which is not cool when you're working ~70 hour weeks. They made the employees buy rain gear from the company instead of just providing available gear that everyone could use. I straight up told them I wasn't going to pay. I guess that seems petty but I was all ready felling completely ripped off by them. I'm so glad I got out of there.
I guess I could have mistaken the headline even worse: "PUUUSH! PUUUUUSSSHHHH!"
"But I'm only seven months pregnant!"
Thanks for posting this, Graybeard. I was thinking about doing so when I read the story this morning, but then decided I'm too lazy. Besides, I knew you'd put it up sometime anyway! ;-)
I should add that I know my experience is nothing like the news story but I'm not at all surprised that the really bad stuff happens being as I've seen how the "good" places are run.
Why in the world would Imperial pay Pro Tree "well in excess" of what they would need"?
Probably because the excess was Pro Tree's cut for providing the labor.
I'm so glad I got out of there.
I'd be glad, too.
Contract work. The contractor pays the contractee a very good sum for the completed work. What the contractee pays its employees to do the actual work is entirely up to the contractee.
Temp agencies work on the same principle.
Yeah to the employment department when I filed my claim. I don't know that they were doing anything overtly illegal but it's not ethical.
If the evidence shows that the payment per hour to the subcontractor was sufficient to pay the agreed-upon wages of the workers, it doesn't really seem Imperial is to blame for the subcontractor pocketing the money and ripping off the workers.
The regulation on the H2A are so complex and hard to comply with, it is impossible for a company like Imperial to use it. This is why the quota on the H2A is never filled.
Instead, companies like Imperial will turn to a broker like Pro Tree because Pro Tree can conform to the contract life required by the visa by moving the temp worker to a different job, which is what happened to these workers.
The H2A needs to be fixed/reformed.
Your story sounds like the olden days of cheap labor, ie: Pullman Sleeping Cars, Coal mine operators, sweat shops.
All of which rented housing and forcibly sold goods to
the poor working stiff at inflated prices. The State and Federal Govt;s assisted in this slave market for many years.
Sorry, I meant the subcontractor, not Imperial
LOL... exactly my first thought!
Please Freepmail me if you want on or off my infrequent Connecticut ping list.
Since when are Guatemalans issued visas to come work in the US land-scaping industry??
In that case, why aren't the 12~15M ILLEGAL Mexican immigrants given similar work visas?