Thanks to the work of some local lawyers, a federal judge has ordered a Georgia-based forestry contractor to pay $11.8 million in unpaid wages to foreign laborers, a massive judgment that some experts think could intimidate other companies into complying with labor laws.
“It’s the largest judgment we know of that’s been won by a group of guestworkers in the U.S.,” said Tim Freilich, legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. A team of attorneys, including lawyers from the Legal Aid Justice Center, took Eller & Sons Trees, once one of the largest forestry companies in the country, to court for its negligent employment practices.
“A court judgment of that magnitude sends a valuable message to employers about the risks of violating workers’ rights under guestworker programs,” said Bruce Goldstein, an attorney and president of Farmworker Justice in Washington. “We hope this judgment and the lawsuits that we and other public-interest attorneys bring will reduce the abuses that are inherent in guestworker programs,” he added.
Mexican and Guatemalan guestworkers were paid a fraction of the wages Eller & Sons promised them for their work planting tree seedlings across the southeastern United States, according to court documents.
Laborers worked in excess of 40 hours per week, but earned less than minimum wage. Freilich said workers were paid just 2 to 2.5 cents for each seedling they planted.
“It’s back-breaking work,” he added. “Can you imagine planting thousands of tree seedlings by hand each day for weeks on end?”
Eller & Sons required some workers to hand over deeds to their homes before coming to America, according to court documents. Few of the workers spoke English, and therefore had little understanding of their legal rights while working in the U.S., the lawsuit reads.
“Many employers take advantage of the vulnerable guestworkers by violating their few protections and displacing U.S. citizens and lawful permanent resident immigrants, who are seen as more able to protect themselves against abuse,” Goldstein said.
After a Georgia judge ruled that the contractor’s business practices were unlawful, Eller & Sons Trees closed its doors.
“Instead of complying with the law, they decided to close the business,” said Jim Knoepp, senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The complaint was filed in 2005, but the judgment was not reached until October. Jerry Eller, the now-defunct business’ owner, has since declared personal bankruptcy, Freilich said. As a result, only $57,000 was actually recovered, and a fraction of the estimated 4,000 victims will be paid, Freilich said.
The judgment is just one case in a decade-long legal campaign to reform the tree-planting industry, Freilich said.
In a similar case led by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, attorneys against Superior Forestry Inc., an Arkansas-based forestry company, agreed to pay $2.75 million to guestworkers who were cheated out of wages.
“The goal of the legal campaign has been to force labor contractors to comply with the law and get them to pay their workers the money they’ve earned,” Freilich said.
The guestworkers were only granted temporary visas, and have since returned to their home countries. They could not be reached for comment.