Women Guestworkers Challenge Seafood Company's Gender-Based Job Restrictions

March 17, 2010 12:20 pm

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Women Represented By ACLU And North Carolina Justice Center

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COLUMBIA, N.C. – Three Mexican women employed on temporary worker visas in North Carolina sued a seafood processing company today for unlawfully restricting them to certain work solely because they are women. The lawsuit also claims that the company underpaid them, unlawfully failed to reimburse their travel costs and wrongfully fired them. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation and the North Carolina Justice Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of the three women and other workers in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

“The company restricted these women to certain types of jobs and limited the hours of work available to them simply because they are women,” said Ariela Migdal, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “The women were qualified for the better jobs reserved for the men and entitled to an equal opportunity to perform that work.”

The women were recruited in Mexico by Captain Charlie’s Seafood, Inc. to process seafood in North Carolina. The seafood company also recruited men and agreed to pay all of the workers the prevailing hourly wage for seafood processing. To bring the migrant workers to the U.S. as legal temporary workers under the H-2B visa program, the seafood company was required to cover their travel and visa processing fees.

Once the workers arrived in North Carolina, however, Captain Charlie’s restricted the women to picking crabs, a job that entails cleaning meat from cooked crabs, and offered them far fewer paid hours than it did to the men. The men, in contrast, were given a variety of other jobs, such as cooking and carrying crabs and handling crab traps. At times, the women sat idly and watched in frustration as their male counterparts earned wages for work that both women and men are fully capable of performing. Eventually, in August 2009, Captain Charlie’s terminated a group of approximately 20 women crab pickers but kept on male workers who performed other work. The company also failed to reimburse the workers for their travel and visa expenses, as required under the H-2B program, and failed to pay the prevailing wage it had promised when recruiting them.

“I was given different work and fewer hours just because I am a woman,” said Sandivel Villanueva Flores, one of the women represented in the case. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

The women’s lawsuit charges that Captain Charlie’s discriminated against them on the basis of sex by restricting them to certain work, which culminated in their wrongful termination in violation of North Carolina public policy prohibiting such gender-based employment decisions. The lawsuit also charges that the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and the North Carolina Wages and Hours Act in underpaying workers and failing to reimburse them for travel and visa expenses.

The women 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.

“Unfortunately, women seasonal workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation by their employers,” said Clermont Fraser, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center. “Migrant workers face many difficulties for a variety of reasons like language barriers and racism, but women have the additional hurdle of sexism.”

The attorneys filing the case, Landeros Covarrubias, et al. v. Capt. Charlie’s Seafood, Inc., are Migdal and Lenora Lapidus of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project; Fraser and Carol Brooke of North Carolina Justice Center; and Katy L. Parker of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. Risha Foulkes of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project is also working on the case.

A copy of the complaint can be found at: www.aclu.org/womens-rights/covarrubias-v-captain-charlies-seafood-inc-complaint

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