"We came to the U.S. legally," says one Decatur plaintiff from Bolivia, who chose to remain unidentified for fear of recrimination. "But people took advantage of our economic desperation and the result is modern-day slavery."
In 2006, hundreds of New Orleans businesses claimed that the area's depleted workforce could not match their hiring needs, despite the fact that unemployment rates reached 8.9% in the city and 16.8% in surrounding suburbs following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Instead of hiring local residents, employers brought in thousands of guest workers from abroad to fill the gap.
Recruited by subcontracted agencies in their home countries, 290 workers arrived on 10-month H-2B visas (for non-professional, non-agricultural labor) from Bolivia, the Dominican Republic and Peru to work at the front desk, in maintenance, and as cleaning staff for Decatur's 15 luxury hotels throughout the New Orleans area. Decatur, founded in 1988 by Quinn and Edwin Palmer III, prides itself on turning abandoned historic buildings into boutique hotels. Decatur's lawyer Patricia LeBlanc told the Associated Press on Aug. 17 that the hotel firm sought to use the H-2B program for the first time after Katrina because the company had consistent problems finding hourly workers locally.
The guest workers arrived last spring with the hope of saving enough money to start a business, buy a home or support extended family. They left behind spouses and children and, in most cases, spent $3000 to $5000 each on recruitment, visa and travel fees. "If I got the 40 hours a week at $6 per hour promised in my contract, I knew I could pay back my debt, send money home and save for the future," says one worker from the Dominican Republic, who also requested anonymity.
But they say the reality of their situation was much different from what they were promised. According to the contracts they signed with Decatur before coming to the U.S., the guest workers were to live in a "very nice newly refurbished hotel with large swimming pool" and assured "[t]ransportation provided to and from work." Instead, the workers say they were put in a half-rebuilt, mold-infested Decatur motel and left on their own to get to and from work. The pool water, according to one guest worker, produced fungal infections on contact.
A month after their arrival, the laborers say, it got worse. "We started getting less and less hours," says the Dominican guest worker, adding that he averaged 24 hours a week. Another showed lawyers a two-week pay stub for $18.08.
Three months into workers' visas about the time they would have earned back their pre-arrival debt many were taking out more loans just to get by. Under H-2B's terms, guest workers are prohibited from getting jobs outside of their contract; out of necessity, many did anyway.
Through clandestine meetings with representatives from the New Orleans Workers Center, a community-based organization that advocates for workers' rights, the guest workers organized. Decatur's management improved the housing situations for most of the guest workers, but when it wouldn't budge on key issues, the workers sued and have since formed the country's first H-2B workers cross-employer alliance.
Owner Quinn declined an interview with TIME until after the ruling, which remains pending since arguments were heard in December. According to court documents and press reports, Decatur says they have done nothing illegal and that they never promised to reimburse the guest workers for their debt.
Elizabeth Rasmussen, Director of Edu Exchange Service, the agency that recruited the Bolivian Decatur workers, defends the hotel firm, arguing that Decatur was overstaffed, and therefore had to slash hours, because they "miscalculated the number of workers they would need, not out of malicious intent."
Immigration experts are not convinced, noting that in post-Katrina New Orleans, businesses regularly used these temporary guest-worker programs to evade hiring U.S. labor at higher wages and with benefits. The Department of Labor (DOL) requires U.S. companies wanting foreign labor to first prove that "no persons in the U.S. are available" for the positions. But Decatur workers' allies claim that the DOL lacked the proper oversight to approve the workers' contracts.
"If Quinn had wanted to find workers, all he had to do was go to the fourth floor of his own Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel," says Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers Center, explaining that Quinn's application was approved while unemployed Katrina victims were living off FEMA vouchers in his hotels.
The faults in the guest worker system exposed by this case extend beyond DOL neglect and raise questions about the program's political status, say advocates for immigrants' rights. President Bush characterized guest worker programs as the panacea to U.S. immigration woes in his recent State of the Union address. On Tuesday, while in Mexico, he pledged his intention to push through an immigration bill that would expand the current guest worker programs. This comes on the heels of the release of an alarming report "Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the U.S." by the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose Immigrant Justice Project represents the Decatur workers. The report, issued Monday, details the widespread abuses of workers that enter the U.S. on H-2B and similar visas.
"The problems start before workers arrive," says Southern Poverty Law Center's Mary Bauer, one of the lead attorneys on the Decatur case. "Middleman recruiters profit from trafficking as many workers as possible because they get paid per worker-employer match." By her calculations, The Accent Group, the U.S. firm Decatur subcontracted to find on-the-ground recruiters such as Edu Exchange's Rasmussen, made $350,000 on the Decatur contracts alone.
Once on U.S. soil, workers have virtually no recourse against an employer who doesn't hold up their side of the bargain. "Temporary guest-worker programs are built around the needs of the employer," says Muzzaffar Chishti, of the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank that studies immigration issues. The 89,000 H-2B workers entering the U.S. annually are bound to their employer and have no right to legal counsel. Yet there is no government agency that can force the companies to abide by their contracts, he explains. "It's today's version of bonded labor."
Workers and immigrants rights advocates acknowledge that even a Decatur suit win does little to address core issues. Only by studying workers' experiences can government create adequate reform, says one Dominican Decatur worker. "President Bush should spend a day in my shoes."
With reporting by Russell McCulley/New Orleans