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Aug 12, 2010 9:29 PM by Alison Haynes

Mexican workers for TDOT contractor claim abuse

SMYRNA, Tenn. (AP) - A Mexican guest worker says a landscaping
company with Tennessee state contracts and a federal stimulus loan
guarantee held him and fellow workers like indentured servants,
confiscating their passports and subjecting them to constant
surveillance by managers who were often armed.
Hilario Razura Jimenez said in an interview that he was rescued
from Vanderbilt Landscaping's company housing Wednesday night by
staff from the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity. He waited
until everyone else was asleep before sneaking out at about
midnight, he said. Staff with the New Orleans-based nonprofit were
in touch with him by text message and drove out to pick him up.
Alliance executive director Saket Soni said company officials
last week put another worker on a bus back to Mexico when they
learned that he had been talking with their group.
A person who answered the phone at the company on Thursday said
he would not comment on the allegations and refused to give his
name. The company, which has $2.4 million in state Transportation
Department contracts and a $900,000 a stimulus loan guarantee from
the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has offices in Smyrna and
Mason.
Jimenez said he has come to the U.S. on an H2B guestworker visa
twice before. Both times the pay and conditions were exploitative,
but he came again because he was desperate.
The 35-year-old comes from the town of Ruiz in Nayarit, Mexico,
and supports his wife and three children on what he can earn
picking tobacco and beans.
"I'm suffering here, but (my family) in Mexico, they're OK. The
little I send keeps them from going without," he said in Spanish.
"But there comes a point where you get fed up and say, 'Enough!"'
At the company housing in Smyrna, 13 or 14 people are lodged in
a small house with one bathroom and no beds, Jimenez said. Workers
built their own beds, he said. They each pay $100 a month rent,
which is deducted from their pay.
They routinely were driven to the office at 6 a.m. and sometimes
did not return until 8 p.m., but were not paid for any of the time
spent waiting for assignments, going between the office and
worksites or cleaning and maintaining the equipment, Jimenez said.
Paychecks were often for only about 25 hours of work a week.
Jimenez said he had to borrow money to come to the U.S. and last
year he did not earn enough to pay back what he had borrowed. With
interest, he owed 25,000 pesos (about $2,000) from last year's trip
when he came to the U.S. this May. And he had to borrow even more
money make this year's trip.
"Many people don't complain because they'll be fired, and they
can't go back to Mexico because they owe lots of money in Mexico,"
he said. "That's why most people won't leave. They just put up
with it."
On Thursday afternoon, Alliance director Soni said they were
filing complaints against Vanderbilt Landscaping with the Tennessee
Department of Transportation and the federal Justice and Labor
departments. The complaints include allegations that the company is
in violation of a number of state and federal laws, including those
against trafficking, forced labor and kidnapping.
The group also held a demonstration and marched to Vanderbilt
Landscaping offices in Smyrna to demand Jimenez's passport and
final paycheck.
A man answering the door, whom Jimenez identified at Joffrey
Vanderbilt, one of the owners, threatened to call the police, but
he allowed two of the demonstrators to enter the building and
retrieve the passport and check.
Marilyn Brown from the Tennessee branch of the NAACP, was one of
them. She said Jimenez's passport was bundled with many others, and
the man she spoke with there told her the workers had voluntarily
handed over their passports for safekeeping.
Alliance organizer Daniel Castellanos, a native of Peru, said he
paid $5,000 in 2006 to come to the U.S. as a guestworker helping to
rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He said the entire
guestworker program needs to be overhauled because it invites
exploitation.
"We suffered the same or worse treatment (as Jimenez)," he
said. Guestworkers are "a captive labor force - disposable."
TDOT spokeswoman Julie Oaks said in an e-mail that most of the
claims made about Vanderbilt Landscaping were outside the purview
of the Transportation Department, but it was preparing to review
the company's payroll records.
"If the contractor is proven to be in violation of any of the
TDOT specifications the department can bar them for future work,"
she wrote.

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