Wal-Mart Supplier Accused of Forced Labor Among Guestworkers

A group of immigrant workers has gone on strike and compiled over 130,000 signatures in an effort to get retail giant Wal-Mart to drop its contract with a Louisiana-based seafood company amid allegations of forced labor and brutal work conditions.

The workers, all immigrants from Mexico in the U.S. on H-2B work visas, recently created a petition with the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) asking Wal-Mart to hold CJ's Seafood of Louisiana accountable for violating supplier standards.

Spearheaded by worker Ana Rosa Díaz, the employees claim that supervisors at CJ’s Seafood forced them to work up to 24 hours at a time with no overtime pay, locked them in the facility and threatened to beat them with a shovel to stop them from taking breaks.

"We were forced to work 15- to 24-hour shifts and we were threatened with violence when we tried to take breaks," Rosa Díaz said in a press release from Change.org. "Our boss threatened us and our families and we went on strike to demand safety and basic rights. But our boss refused, so now we’re taking our demands to Wal-Mart."

A video released by Change.org shows the workers giving their demands to the company’s finance executive Mike Leblanc before he shouts at them to turn the camera off.

“Y’all are not going to screw up over and start interrogating me,” Leblanc said in the video.

The alleged abuses by CJ’s Seafood are currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.

On Wednesday, the labor rights monitoring organization the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) verified the claims in a report and also asked Wal-Mart to disuse the seafood company's business until the violations have been addressed.

These types of threats are common to all types of guestworkers...but there are few people who will stand up and say things about them.

— Ana Rosa Díaz, a guestworker from Mexico

"CJ’s Seafood has engaged in extremely coercive employment related actions, including 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 after workers contacted law enforcement for assistance," wrote Jennifer J. Rosenbaum of the National Guestworker Alliance in a complaint to the Labor Department.

The workers, who live on a labor camp adjacent to the facility, also claim they had to report to the owners when they wanted to leave.

"As soon as we received reports of potential violation of our ethical sourcing policy we launched an investigation," said Megan Murphy, international corporate affairs manager for Wal-Mart, according to the International Business Times. "We take reports like this very seriously and we will take appropriate actions based on the findings from our investigation."

Calls for comment to both CJ’s Seafood and Wal-Mart were not returned by the time of publication.

"Wal-Mart closed its investigation a few days later, but failed to contact any of the workers involved in the accusations," said Jacob Horwitz of the NGA.

The recent allegations by immigrants are not the first to hit Wal-Mart over the last decade. Besides facing claims from labor unions, Christian organizations and environmental groups over everything from gender discrimination to bribery charges, Wal-Mart ended up dishing out $11 million in 2005 to end a federal probe into its use of undocumented immigrants as janitors.

The Justice Department investigation led to an October 2003 raid spanning 60 stores in 21 states and the arrest of 245 alleged undocumented immigrants. The company, however, settled the matter out of court and was able to avoid criminal charges.

"We are satisfied that this is being settled as a civil matter," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams said at the time. "Despite a long, thorough and high-profile investigation, the government has not charged anyone at Wal-Mart with wrongdoing."

Many of the undocumented immigrants filed a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart for violating federal racketeering laws by conspiring with cleaning contractors to cheat immigrant janitors out of wages.

"These types of threats are common to all types of guestworkers," Rosa Díaz said. "But there are few people who will stand up and say things about them."

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter: @aoreilly84

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