Discount giant Walmart is pushing back against allegations by low-wage Mexican crawfish packers in Louisiana who say that work conditions at a Walmart supplier amounted to forced labor.
The retailing company says it wrapped up its investigation on Wednesday afternoon into the complaints by Mexican migrant laborers who said managers at CJ’s Seafood forced them to work up to 24-hour shifts, barricaded them on the plant floor, threatened them with violence and denied workers overtime.
Megan Murphy, a Walmart spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement: “Following our investigation, as well as investigations by the Department of Labor and OSHA, at this time we are unable to substantiate claims of forced labor or human trafficking at CJ Seafood.”
Representatives of the nonprofit labor rights group that represents the Mexican workers say Walmart investigators haven’t spoken to any of the workers who reported the alleged abuses. Jacob Horwitz, the lead organizer for the National Guestworker Alliance, says “no investigator has contacted us or the workers who brought the complaint.”
Joshua Lamont, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor, said his agency is still investigating. “We can’t comment on an ongoing investigation,” he said, “except to say there is an ongoing investigation.”
CJ’s Seafood, based in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, supplies cooked, packaged crawfish tails sold at the Walmart subsidiary Sam’s Club. About 40 Mexican workers had been working in the plant, according to the labor activists and locals in Louisiana. Eight of those marched off the job early in June, and filed complaints against CJ’s Seafood with the federal Labor Department and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
It’s the latest allegation against a Walmart supplier. The retail giant has been battered recently by reports that it paid $24 million in bribes to Mexican officials to get favorable treatment in store construction permits. International labor rights officials have criticized Walmart for decades, and investigations over the years have uncovered allegations that its suppliers in countries like Bangladesh, Honduras, and China ran sweatshops.
Walmart says it has a tough set of ethical standards for its suppliers. In her email to The Daily Beast, Walmart’s spokeswoman wrote that “we remain committed to sourcing merchandise that is produced responsibly by suppliers that adhere to Walmart’s rigorous Standards for Suppliers code of conduct.”
The Louisiana allegations surfaced this spring after Horwitz, the labor organizer, got a call from a worker at CJ’s. The National Guestworker Alliance tries to draw attention to what it says are the inequities in the migrant worker visa program, and Horwitz says the group is routinely contacted by workers who need help. “I got a call from someone,” he said, “who said they worked in a processing plant and said ‘I’m working 15 to 24 hour shifts.’”
On June 4, the eight workers confronted Michael Leblanc, who they describe as the plant manager, in an incident videotaped by Horwitz’s group. Two days later, the workers filed complaints alleging CJ’s Seafood violated federal law by “forcing guestworkers to work up to 24-hour shifts, with no overtime pay, locking guestworkers in the plant to force them to continue to work, threatening the guestworkers with beatings to make them work faster, and threatening violence against the guestworkers’ families in Mexico.”
CJ’s Seafood didn’t respond to messages left on the company’s voice mail. Leblanc couldn’t be reached for comment.
The workers say they were hired under the H-2B visa program, which allows companies to hire foreign workers for temporary jobs. To qualify for the program, employers have to show that they can’t find enough U.S. workers to fill the jobs, and that they won’t be undercutting wages or working conditions of U.S. workers in similar fields. The program has drawn fire from immigrant groups and labor activists who say it essentially legalizes cheap labor. After the Obama Administration enacted a rule last year that would increase wages for guestworkers, a coalition of interest groups—including the Crawfish Processors Alliance—sued the Labor Department in federal court in Louisiana. According to the lawsuit, crawfish processors “depend on the H-2B workers,” and new wage hikes “will cripple Louisiana employers.”
In December, the federal lawsuit was transferred to a district court in Pennsylvania, but is still ongoing. On Thursday, Senator Richard Shelby (R-Al) plans to introduce an amendment that would restrict the Labor Department for a year from implementing other new protections for guestworkers. A spokesman for Shelby says the rules would “significantly harm” season employers from being able to hire workers.
In Louisiana, there’s now a sophisticated campaign underway to bring attention to the complaints against CJ’s Seafood, including an online petition, and a video with the workers’ stories. The Workers Rights Consortium, another group based in Washington, says it’s also investigating.
Guestworkers under the H-2B visa program are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment by employers, because there is little recourse if they complain, says Professor Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the law school at University of California at Davis. “One of the concerns that people have with guestworker programs generally,” he says, “is the fear that workers will be exploited and that even though there are wage and hour protections they won’t always be honored. And if they complain about wages or hours they may end up losing their jobs and getting removed.”
Johnson says he knows nothing about the CJ’s Seafood case, but he says generally, barricading people into a room would be considered forced labor. “If you’re locking people up, that’s forced labor. If you’re saying we’re going to fire you if you don’t work 60-hour weeks, that’s another type of force. It’s not physical force but it may be some kind of coercion.”
Silvia Alfaro, one of the workers who left the CJ’s Seafood plan and filed a complaint, says she comes from the town of Guillermo Zuniga, in the impoverished, violence-ridden northern Mexico state of Taumalipas. Most of the 40 migrant workers at the plant, she says, are from the same region.
The 39-year-old says she and her husband have five children and it was no secret in her small community that the crawfish plant in Louisiana could offer work. So five years ago she asked an acquaintance to help her. With the help of the company, she and her husband obtained H-2B visas, allowing them work for three to 10 months in the U.S.
Since then, she’s been returning six months a year to Breaux Bridge, to the same plant, for the crawfish season. Her job was simple and monotonous: cracking steamed crawfish, peeling out the tails and piling all that crawfish meat into containers, to be frozen and sold. She says she was paid $2 for each pound she picked. Alfaro says she and the other workers lived in run down trailers on the plant’s ground.
It was steady work, and it gave her enough to support her family in Mexico, but this year, she says, things got intolerable. She says the plant management said they needed to fill orders, and insisted people work extraordinary hours. “I started work at two every morning and worked until five or six in the afternoon.”
Men, she says, worked 24 hours, forced to steam the crawfish and then peel them. On several occasions, management barricaded the doors to keep the workers inside and on the job. After a worker called 911, Alfaro says the plant manager, Michael Leblanc, gathered up the workers to scare them straight. “He said he knew people who could harm us and our family.”
In May, Alfaro and some of the workers rebelled and left.
The incident is big news in Breaux Bridge, which bills itself as the “Crawfish Capital of the World.” Frank Randol, who runs another crawfish processing plant, says he doesn’t know how Leblanc “runs his business, but I have to give him the benefit of the doubt.”