The Rights We Take for Granted

By Ariela Migdal, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Women’s Rights Project

It may seem obvious that all workers are entitled to a work environment free from sex discrimination and to the wages guaranteed to them by law. But for laborers who come to this country to work temporarily under the H-2B visa program, the ability to enforce these basic rights is often out of reach.

This was the case for three of our clients who came to North Carolina from Mexico to work in the seafood processing industry. According to allegations they made in charges of discrimination and a class action lawsuit, they were limited by their employer to picking crab meat, while men were given a range of other work, and were given much more work than the women. In addition, our lawsuit claimed that their employer paid both men and women H-2B workers less than the wages promised to them, and failed to reimburse them for the travel and visa expenses they incurred, as the H-2B program requires.

This week, a federal judge approved a settlement agreement in which the women’s employer agreed, not only to pay its workers damages for the way they were treated, but to change the way it does business. The seafood processer will institute a non-discrimination policy, reimburse its workers for visa and travel expenses from now on, offer jobs on a gender-neutral basis, offer training to workers who want to learn how to do different tasks, provide outside independent training on non-discrimination, and keep a record of who does which jobs. A consent decree will allow the plaintiffs and the court to monitor the company’s compliance for three years.

Such a robust settlement agreement is necessary, because immigrant and migrant workers, especially women, are vulnerable to abuses and discrimination. Agreements like this one send the message to employers that guestworkers – who often are not treated like guests – are entitled to the same protections on the job as other employees, including the right to be free from sex discrimination in the allocation of work.

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