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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Sep 15, 2009, 12:30 pm

Carnival Guest Workers Win Back Wages, Better Living Conditions

BY Emily Udell

(Photo courtesy Modern-Workers.com)

A recent settlement between Dreamland Amusements and its workers aims to send a message to carnival operators: exploitation of foreign-born or other workers will not go unnoticed or unpunished.

It’s a case that highlights the terrible conditions that some H2B (temporary work visa) program workers face, including psychological abuse, terrible living conditions and loss of wages. Because of their precarious legal status, they are often unable to fight back.

But in a recent victory for guest laborers, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo ordered Dreamland to pay $325,000 in back wages, improve the substandard living conditions in which its workers were forced to live, and require managers to undergo anti-discrimination training.

Under the agreement, which was announced at the end of August, the company must reform its employment practices and submit to monitoring and unannounced visits to its job sites.

A subsequent probe found that the workers on visas were denied minimum wages and overtime while working as much as 70 hours per week. They were forced to live in cramped, bug-infested trailers while other workers who were not on visas received preferential living quarters.

Cuomo said:

This company not only denied its employees the pay they had earned - but abused and manipulated a system in place to help foreign-born workers build lives for themselves and their families. ... Today's agreement will deliver welcome restitution to the workers who were cheated, as well as send a message to other employers statewide that abuses of their employees come with a price tag.

Carnival work is often grueling, sometimes requiring up to 20 straight hours of labor to tear down and erect rides and then operate them.

Since the agreement at the end of August, Cuomo’s sending out the message to other traveling carnival operators to obey federal, state and local labor and civil rights laws.

The case of Dreamland carnival workers is not unique for H2B workers. Like others on the economic fringes, they are vulnerable to wage theft, abuse and exploitation.

A 2007 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that guestworkers were routinely forced to live in substandard accommodations, had their documents seized and failed to received medical treatment for injuries. The report says:

The most fundamental problem with the H-2 system is that employers hold all the cards. They decide which workers can come to the United States and which cannot. They decide whether a worker can stay in this country. They usually decide where and under what conditions workers live and how they travel.

If guestworkers complain about abuses, the reports says, "they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation."

In April of this year, numerous guestworkers and experts testified before the Domestic Policy Subcommittee to encourage the Department of Labor to step up its enforcement and begin reaching out to temporary workers.

In his testimony, Aby K. Raju recounted the exploitation he and 500 other workers suffered after they were trafficked from India in order to work for Signal International doing welding, pipe-fitting and other work.

Raju said that many workers paid exorbitant fees to the company’s recruiters and then were subjected to intimidation when their documents were seized and they were forced to live in labor camps in Mississippi and Texas.

He said conditions were so harsh that one guestworker attempted suicide. Others were detained and interrogated for speaking out against the conditions in which they were forced to work.

In Raju’s testimony (PDF), he offers many productive ideas for protecting guestworkers, including instituting an outreach plan that would inform the workers of their rights and how to contact the Department of Labor.

He suggests the department enforce laws requiring the repayment of debts before workers arrive so that they don’t face fear of imminent deportation for speaking out, and also called on the department to begin reporting annually on the number of complaints and their resolution.

Lastly:

[The labor department] should prohibit employers, recruiters, lawyers and others who abuse the program from bringing guestworkers in the future.

How painfully obvious.

Emily Udell is a writer for Angie’s List Magazine in Indianapolis. In 2009, she finished a stint drinking bourbon and covering breaking news for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. Her eclectic media career also includes time at the Associated Press, Punk Planet (R.I.P.), The Daily Southtown in southwest Chicago, and Radio Prague in the Czech Republic. She co-hosted and co-produced In These Times’ radio show “Fire on the Prairie” from 2003 to 2006.

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