Blog of Rights

ACLU Sues Federal Contractor for Exploiting Immigrant Workforce

By Jennie Pasquarella, ACLU of Southern California at 1:41pm

Terra Universal, Inc., is a multimillion dollar U.S. government contractor built on the backs of an immigrant workforce. It contracts with the U.S. Army, Navy and NASA, but for years, its owner, George Sadaghiani, has exploited and discriminated against its workers.

Terra Universal regularly makes employees at its plant in Fullerton, California, work as many as 14 hours a day, but refuses to pay overtime. The company pays workers whom its executives believe to be undocumented far less than everyone else, and denies them benefits. Mr. Sadaghiani verbally abuses workers and flaunts basic health and safety codes, all the while browbeating the employees into believing that if they don't have papers, they don't have basic workplace rights.

Yesterday, the ACLU of Southern California and the law firm of Hadsell Stormer Keeny Richardson & Renick LLP filed suit against Terra Universal (PDF) and Mr. Sadaghiani today, demanding repayment of all the wages and benefits he cheated from his workers — both citizens and noncitizens alike.

Mr. Sadaghiani is the kind of business owner the Obama Administration has said it would target for breaking the law to exploit its workforce. Yet, until now the most vulnerable workers, who are the victims of these unscrupulous practices, have paid the greatest price.

On June 29, 2010, immigration agents raided Terra Universal. Agents corralled the workers and handcuffed and arrested 43 of them. Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been investigating the company for some time and was aware of egregious labor violations, it only informed the Department of Labor of its plans for a raid immediately beforehand. Now, although the Labor Department is investigating wage and hour violations, the victims of those practices face deportation.

Upon learning of the raid, the ACLU of Southern California investigated. What we found was staggering. Terra Universal avoided paying overtime by forcing workers to punch into fake second jobs after eight hours of work. Employees injured on the job were sent home without pay, or their pay would be docked. And most troubling was an elaborate two-tier system of workplace rights: a system for workers believed to be undocumented, and another system for everyone else. A red dot on a worker's human resources file meant that he or she could be denied equal pay, overtime wages, vacation, holiday and sick days — and any opportunities for a raise.

Worker exploitation is nothing new — but its brutal reality often goes untold. Such practices are magnified when you have a vulnerable immigrant workforce, unaware of their rights, and employers eager to exploit that fact. U.S. employment laws do not allow for a two-tiered system; instead, they provide the same protections for everyone regardless of their immigration status.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt heralded passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the 1938 federal law guaranteeing that American workers must be paid a minimum wage, and overtime when more than 40 hours are worked in a week, with these words: "A fair day's pay for a fair day's work."

This has become one of the nation's most revered and time-honored principles. Unfortunately, while there are unscrupulous employers bent on violating the law in order to gain a competitive advantage, the federal government provides little deterrent, devoting diminishing resources to enforcement. And, so long as the federal government fails to aggressively enforce the law against ruthlessly exploitative employers and instead places their very victims in deportation proceedings when it discovers such practices, workers will be reluctant to report abuses, and employers will continue to erode basic employment protections for everyone.

This case is against one company, but it's directed at the many businesses out there who believe they can exploit a vulnerable immigrant workforce without consequence. Every employer must afford all of their workers the dignity they deserve regardless of where they come from and how they got here.

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