Immigrant Labor Abuse in Spotlight

Article excerpt

Immigrant workers in Oklahoma - and across the United States - face new threats from illegal labor brokers and businesses that have made the workers virtual human slaves, forced to work for little pay and live in subhuman conditions.

The problem has become so pervasive that federal and state authorities have launched investigations across the country and a protest movement has been spawned in Louisiana.

"We know of at least 10 states where temporary immigrant workers face threats and very intense retaliation," said Jacob Horwitz, an organizer with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice.

Horwitz said temporary workers throughout the South have faced subhuman conditions.

"In Nashville a state contractor who had received federal stimulus money recruited 30 guest workers," he said. "Those workers were employed by a landscaping firm who confiscated the workers' passports, required them to live in a work camp and would not allow them to leave the premises, except for once a week to get groceries."

In Oklahoma, labor brokers have kept a low profile, but Sooner State immigrant workers, many officials said, face other threats.

"We have out-of-state companies come here and bring their own workers, many which are undocumented," said state AFL-CIO President Jimmy Curry. "Those companies have state contracts, but they are not paying their employees according to state law. They aren't taking out payroll taxes or paying Social Security or anything."

The practice has led some state contractors to file complaints with the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

"Once they file a complaint, the black curtain comes down," Curry said. "And the Tax Commission won't say anything."

Tax Commission spokesperson Paula Ross said she wouldn't comment about ongoing investigations, but added such complaints are investigated.

"Every time they get a lead, they always send a revenue compliance officer," Ross said. "The officer works to determine if the information is good, such as, is this a good address and things like that."

Tax Commission officials then make an actual visit, then a follow- up visit if the official feels there is a problem with the company. Ross said the agency can request information from out-of-state companies working in Oklahoma.

"If they are working here, we can request information from them," she said.

Along with unscrupulous labor recruiters, some companies bring in workers from other countries then keep them as virtual slaves. In Louisiana workers were brought from Bolivia, Peru and the Dominican Republic, Horwitz said. …