Guest Workers Launch Strike
Guestworkers Launch Strike To Expose Tennessee Employer
Who Violated Federal Law
Prominent labor broker defrauded US government to import guestworkers and lease them across the South; H2B visa workers were made to work on military bases.
Guestworkers trapped in Nashville, Tennessee came forward today to expose the racket of a prominent labor broker who defrauded the US government to import workers and lease them across the South. Workers launched a strike, charged the employer with illegal retaliation against organizing, and demanded that the Department of Labor investigate the employer for fraud.
Workers are members of the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, a membership organization of guestworkers across the South.
The labor broker, Gary Lang, submitted fraudulent applications to the U.S. Government, claiming that workers would be working for his company, Cumberland Environmental Resources, Inc., on site in Brentwood, Tennessee. He swore to the U.S. Government that he had these jobs and he could not find U.S. workers to fill them.
Workers from Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador and Costa Rica paid thousands in recruitment fees to Cumberland's agents for the jobs. When the workers arrived, they learned that the jobs they had been promised did not exist.
Workers languished for weeks, sometimes months, waiting for the work they were promised. "We drowned our families in debt to pay thousands of dollars in recruitment fees to Cumberland's agents," said Miguel Angel Jovel, one of the workers. "Cumberland held us hostage to the hope of jobs that didn't exist."
Finally, instead of providing the promised jobs, Cumberland leased the workers out to other contractors across the South. These included contractors working on local, state, and federal government work sites. Workers were employed on Maxwell Airforce Base in Alabama, Camp Lejuene in North Carolina, Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, Veteran's Hospital in Nashville, and universities across the South including University of Tennessee, Tennessee Tech, University of Kentucky, David Lipscomb, and others.
Workers filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint, charging that Cumberland illegally retaliated against their efforts to organize. "Cumberland violated their contract with us – and with their own US government," said guestworker Tomas Arias. "When we asked to see our contracts, Cumberland refused." When workers asked for a meeting with Cumberland, the company threatened workers with termination and deportation, interrogated workers about their organizing efforts, and attempted to force workers to sign away their right to organize in closed-door meetings. When workers stood up for their dignity and rights and pressed for a meeting, Cumberland retaliated by firing them.
Workers and advocates called on the Department of Labor to investigate Cumberland's fraud. "Companies like Cumberland benefited when the Bush Administration passed its midnight guestworker regulations days before leaving office. The message to employers was: relax, we just made it easier for you to import and exploit foreign workers," said Saket Soni, Director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. "The White House and the Department of Labor need to throw out the Bush regulations and replace them with real protections for all workers," said Soni.
The Bush Administration's H2B regulations, which came into effect just days before President Obama took office, have drawn widespread outrage from workers and advocates.
Clergy, labor, and civil rights leaders endorsed the workers' strike and their call for justice on Wednesday. Tennessee AFL-CIO president Jerry Lee expressed "shock" at Cumberland's practices. "Shame on Cumberland, and shame on our system for letting the employer exploit these workers," said Lee. "At a time when joblessness is at its highest point worldwide, this employer uses the guestworker program to exploit foreign workers and undermine American workers. And when the workers bravely speak out, the employer attacks the workers for organizing."
"That's not America," said Lee. "Or at least it shouldn't be."