Thu | Aug 17, 2017

US non-profit urges Jamaicans who travelled for temporary jobs to sue former employers

Published:Friday | October 16, 2015 | 10:00 AMDaraine Luton

Arguing that approximately 275 Jamaicans who work under the seasonal workers' programme in the United States are due about J$77,000 each per year for expenses incurred in travelling to the North American country in order to work, a non-profit organisation has filed a lawsuit seeking to have a former employer pay over the monies.

The group, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), claims to be a legal-advocacy organisation specialising in civil-rights and public-interest litigation.

It has alleged Kiawah Island Golf Resort near Charleston, South Carolina, did not reimburse the workers for hundreds of dollars in travel and visa expenses each of them paid to get jobs as housekeepers, cooks, servers, and more.

The lawsuit, filed in March, alleges that the resort charged H-2B workers excessive fees for employee housing and transportation, and failed to pay a 2013 wage increase mandated by the US Department of Labour.

"We think that the employer owes them all the money that they have paid for airfare, for their visa, and all of the transportation from their home towns for visa interviews and medical-processing exams," Sarah Rich, SPLC staff attorney, told The Gleaner earlier this week.

"We estimate it to be about US$600-$650 per person, per year," she said, while noting that the lawsuit has been filed on behalf of former Kiawah employees who worked with the company since 2012.

 

ORDERED TO RAISE WAGES

 

Exhibits attached to the lawsuit include Department of Labor letters telling Kiawah to raise the guest workers' wages during the 2013 season.

According to the lawsuit, Kiawah did not increase wages, which meant some workers were making about US$2 per hour less than the current federal guidelines.

The suit goes on to claim the Jamaican guest workers were also excessively charged for shared housing in West Ashley and daily transportation to the island.

Kiawah, in response to the lawsuit, has denied the allegations.

Enquiries made of Jamaica's labour and social security ministry by The Gleaner did not shed light on whether the Government of Jamaica is aware of the issue. However, a response has been promised.

Rich has appealed for persons who believe they have been exploited by Kiawah Island and are desirous of joining the lawsuit to make contact with SPLC.

Rich said current and former H-2B employees of Kiawah Island Golf Resort have until November 14 to join the lawsuit.

SPLC has done a report on what it calls the systematic exploitation of foreign workers for temporary jobs under the nation's H-2 guest-worker programme.

 

CHEATED

 

"Based on dozens of legal cases and interviews with thousands of guest workers, it documents how guest workers are routinely cheated out of wages, forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs, and held virtually captive by employers," the organisation said.

SPLC has consistently attacked groups that have been working to bring about immigration reforms that would protect the jobs and rights of American workers from abuses under the guest-worker programmes.

In its assessment of the guest-workers programme, the SPLC said that it is close to slavery, and allege that far from being treated like guests, workers are system-atically exploited and abused.

"We would want to see the guest-worker programme improved," said Rich.

"We understand that many Jamaicans and other people from other countries are quite dependent on work in the United States to support their families back home. We don't want to take that opportunity away, but the programme, as it currently exists, has many problems, and we think that the programme can be improved to give workers more rights," she added.

In March, the US Department of Labour announced the effective suspension of the H-2B federal guest-worker programme.

The H-2B programme brings foreign workers to the US to fill temporary or seasonal labour shortages in an array of low-skilled, non-agricultural jobs.

daraine.luton@gleanerjm.com