Workers Alleging Abuse By Panhandle Company Call For Immigration Reform

Aug 19, 2013

On Monday, a group of Jamaican workers in the U.S. on work visas filed a complaint with the federal government claiming their Panhandle-based employer abuses them. Several labor unions and civil rights groups are pointing to the alleged abuse as an example of the need for comprehensive federal immigration reform.

Judith Heslop says she spent more than $2,000 to get a work visa and travel from her home in St. Mary, Jamaica, to Destin, Florida, to clean luxury condos with Mr. Clean cleaning service. The company provided housing, but Heslop says she had to find cushions from a Dumpster to sleep on.

“About 13 of us was in a two-bedroom apartment sleeping on the floor for about one and a half months to two months,” she says.

And she says after Mr. Clean’s owner deducted rent, workers would get paychecks written out in the amount of zero dollars.

“He held us hostage. We were mistreated, we were robbed, we were abused in this situation in working under Mr. Clean,” she says.

And so the National Guestworker Alliance’s Jacob Horwitz has been helping the Mr. Clean employees organize.

“The workers expected and they understood that they would be treated with dignity and wouldn’t be subjected to these kinds of threats that clearly violate the law and go against their civil and labor rights,” he says.

In Tallahassee Monday, a handful of Jamaican guestworkers joined leaders from the Guestworker Alliance, the AFL-CIO, the NAACP and other groups to call for comprehensive immigration reforms, including more rules for employers who give jobs to workers in the country on visas.

But Mr. Clean Director of Human Resources, Karen Ledet, says, “I feel that they in fact are abusing this company.”

Ledet denies workers are given apartments with no beds, and she says no more than two people share a single bedroom. She acknowledges workers sometimes get a zero-dollar paycheck, but only when they refuse to work—often, she says, because they’ve taken second jobs with conflicting hours. She says the company charges the workers for rent and utilities—but over the past two months, company owner Ray Villanueva was able to recover only one-eighth of his housing costs.

Ledet says the allegations against Villanueva amaze her because he entered the country as a guestworker himself.

“So that was the other point of him working with these workers to accommodate [them] because he made sure that they were not treated as he was treated when he came in,” she says.

She claims the company has lost cleaning contracts because of the workers and says Villanueva has provided them as many hours as possible, even going so far as to find some employees second jobs.

Reached by phone, labor organizer Horvitz says that doesn’t change the fact that the company allegedly used the threat of deportation as a weapon. He says notes stapled to paychecks warned employees who missed work would be reported to immigration enforcement agents and the local sheriff’s office immediately.

“That threat was in direct response to a group of workers who went on strike when they didn’t get paid,” he says. “So I just think that the expression of concern that the HR person is expressing is completely disingenuous.”

The workers and advocates met with Panhandle Congressman Steve Southerland (R-FL 2) Monday asking him to protect workers’ rights and reject his party’s official stance on immigration reform. They will continue the campaign across the state with their next stop planned in Miami.