News & Commentary

November 16, 2018

CoreCivic, the operator of one of the largest prison systems in the U.S., is facing a class action lawsuit from three formerly detained immigrants who claim that they were paid as little as $1 a day as part of “volunteer” work programs at a detention center in New Mexico. All three men were part of a politically persecuted minority in Cameroon and had presented themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border to apply for asylum. Their attorney, Joseph Sellers, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, explains that while the men awaited their asylum hearings, prison officials offered them a “chance” to make money to pay for basic necessities like food and toiletries. The men were held at the center for six months and paid as little as $0.50 an hour for their labor, in violation of state and federal minimum wage laws. While minimum wage laws do not generally apply to state prisons, CoreCivic is a private company holding immigrant detainees on civil, rather than criminal, charges.

In March, a group of 18 Republican congressmen urged the Trump administration to defend private prisons against lawsuits alleging that immigrant detainees were forced to work for $1 a day. Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued CoreCivic for forcing immigrants to run their own detention center for $1 a day. In 2017, a district court judge for the Western District of Washington ruled that the state of Washington could pursue a lawsuit seeking to force GEO Group, another private prison system, to pay the state minimum wage for work done by immigrant detainees at GEO’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA.

Terri Gerstein penned an op-ed in the New York Times advocating the end of forced arbitration for all labor disputes. While several tech companies have recently abolished forced arbitration for sexual assault and harassment claims, Gerstein explains that the practice of mandating arbitration for other claims leaves employees vulnerable to a slew of workplace violations, from racial discrimination to retaliation and wage theft. Although ending forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims is a necessary step, “at the root of sexual harassment… is abuse of power,” Gerstein writes. The practice of forcing workers to waive their right to individual or class lawsuits ultimately creates the kind of culture that silences employees and allows sexual harassment and other injustices to flourish. Instead of silencing employees to avoid the liability and bad press that come from public lawsuits, Gerstein concludes that companies should seek to “create a fair and lawful workplace” in which “everyone who contributes to a company’s success” has a voice.

The U.S. branch of the world’s largest food processing company agreed to pay $4 million in back wages and other monetary relief as part of a consent decree to settle labor claims. The U.S. Department of Labor claimed that JBS USA had discriminated on the basis of race and gender against applicants for positions at two of its facilities. While the company denies the allegations, it will hire 1,664 of the applicants and pay $4 million in back wages and other monetary relief to 12,625 class members at those facilities. In October, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit claiming that JBS’ transportation arm had used pre-employment screenings to filter out applicants with disabilities.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to enact legislation that would allow up to 345,150 foreign workers to come to Japan over the next five years to work in fields like construction and farming. While the legislation, if enacted, would mark a dramatic shift in Japanese immigration policy, the plan will ultimately deliver fewer than a quarter of the estimated 1.5 million workers the country needs to offset its growing labor shortage. Although the legislation is expected to pass, the plan faces criticism from conservatives who have criticized the admission of guest workers as amounting to “immigration” and from Japan’s Trade Union Confederation, which has expressed concern about the potential exploitation of foreign workers. In the 1990s, Japan launched a system of accepting foreign “interns” from developing countries in Asia to work in blue-collar jobs; workers admitted under this technical trainee system often worked at less than minimum wage and were prevented from switching jobs.

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