Blog of Rights

Sorry, Charlie.

By Risha Foulkes, Women's Rights Project at 11:30am

But you're just not playing by the rules. Today, the ACLU and North Carolina Justice Center filed a lawsuit against Captain Charlie's Seafood, Inc., for unlawfully discriminating against female employees by restricting them to certain work solely because they're women.

The phrase “equal pay for equal work” is a familiar refrain in the United States. But Captain Charlie’s recruited our three plaintiffs in Mexico, inviting them to process seafood in North Carolina as guestworkers under the H-2B visa program. Migrant workers like our Spanish-speaking plaintiffs tend to be linguistically isolated, housed in remote, rural areas, and unaware of U.S. labor laws and the resources available to underpaid workers. And women often face additional exploitation because employers believe they don’t need to earn as much money as men, or that they’re not capable of performing the same work. For these workers, sex discrimination is an everyday occurrence, whether it's in the form of job restrictions, pregnancy discrimination, or sexual harassment on the job.

But our clients are speaking up. They knew when they arrived at Captain Charlie’s that it wasn’t fair they were only allowed to do “crab picking” work, which entails removing and cleaning the meat from the cooked crabs. The men they worked with were allowed to cook the crabs, carry them to the tables, and handle the crab traps—all jobs that the women were physically capable of doing too. There was more of the “men’s work” available, and the women sometimes had to sit around with nothing to do, passing up opportunities to earn money they had counted on making for their families and themselves. After several months of this discrimination, Captain Charlie’s laid off approximately 20 women.

To add insult to injury, Captain Charlie's refused to reimburse the women for visa fees and the cost of travel from Mexico. (The company is required under the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover these fees and costs when workers' expenses are high enough that their net earnings fall below the minimum wage.)

Today's lawsuit charges that Captain Charlie’s discriminated against the women on the basis of sex by restricting them to certain work, in violation of North Carolina public policy, which prohibits such gender-based employment decisions. The lawsuit also charges that the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act (PDF) in underpaying workers and failing to reimburse them for travel and visa expenses. The women have also filed charges of unlawful discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that the gender-based job restrictions violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

We hope that our plaintiffs’ demand for equal pay and equal work will echo throughout North Carolina’s seafood processing industry, and beyond.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that Captain Charlie's is required by the U.S. Department of Labor and the North Carolina Employment Security Commission to cover the cost to bring the women to North Carolina from Mexico. That was incorrect. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires the company to cover these fees and costs when workers' expenses are high enough that their net earnings fall below the minimum wage.

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