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Wage Theft Across Borders

February 15, 2013

Stories

Frontera NorteSur

As discussion mounted over the issue of an expanded guestworker system in an immigration reform package, a company connected to former Secretary of State Colin Powell found itself in hot water in connection with the employment of Mexican workers in the U.S.

U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh recently ordered that Silicon Valley-based Bloom Energy Corporation fork out nearly $64,000 in back pay and damages to 14 workers from Chihuahua, Mexico, who were transported to California to refurbish power generators.

The court decision stemmed from a U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) probe that found the workers were paid in Mexican pesos the U.S. equivalent of $2.66 per hour, or a wage that is more typical of foreign-owned maquiladora plants in Mexico dedicated to manufacturing products for export.

“It is appalling that this was happening right in the heart of Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest per capita areas in the U.S.,” Ruben Rosalez, western regional administrator of the DOL’s wage and hour division, said in a statement. “The department remains vigilant in protecting the rights of vulnerable workers and to ensuring they are paid the wages they have rightfully earned..”

Bloom Energy was also ordered to pay $6,160 in civil money penalties due to the “willful nature of the violations,” the DOL said.

Bloom Energy issued a brief statement February 7 in which the corporation accepted “full responsibility” for the violations, blaming the problem on a “breakdown in our internal processes” which was at odds with the company’s “culture and values.” Stating that it had paid the fines and back wages owed, Bloom Energy pledged to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Founded in 2001 and headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, Bloom Energy makes green energy power systems for big-name customers including Google, Wal-Mart, Kaiser Permanente, Coca-Cola, eBay and FedEx. Reportedly, the company operates a manufacturing plant in Chihuahua.

Bloom Energy’s website states that the company utilizes an “innovative new fuel cell technology with roots in NASA’s Mars program,” and that its power generation product has delivered millions of kilowatts of electricity while eliminating millions of pounds of carbon dioxide from the environment.

In addition to General Colin Powell, company board members include individuals associated with Morgan Stanley, Alberta Investment Management Corporation and the high-tech industry.

DOL spokeswoman Deanne Amaden said her agency had not seen the type of labor law violations lodged against Bloom Energy “elsewhere in the tech industry” and, to officials’ best of knowledge, were not a “common practice” in the sector.

But the Bloom Energy episode isn’t the first time a high-tech company has come under the scrutiny of the federal government for employing foreign workers in the U.S. at sub-minimum pay.

In 1996 the San Jose Mercury News reported that IBM was questioned by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for bringing Mexican workers to a disk drive line in San Jose and paying them $1.40 per hour. Immigration officials later agreed with IBM’S assertions that the company was merely training the workers in tasks they needed to perform at a company plant in the Guadalajara area.

However, two workers were quoted insisting that the work they did in San Jose was “exactly” the same as the work they had already done in Mexico. At least two groups of workers were brought from the Guadalajara area to work in San Jose for periods of up to three months.

The case against Bloom Energy received some play in the California and Mexican press this past week. The news also broke the same week as the release of a critical report on international worker recruitment by a coalition of U.S. labor, human rights, pro-immigrant and allied organizations.

Alleging widespread abuses, the coalition contended that legal violations and irregularities occur across the occupational spectrum from lower-paid agricultural and service jobs to ostensibly professional-level nursing, teaching and high-tech positions.

“Abuse is rampant under the current international worker programs and visa categories,” charged Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM).

Organizations endorsing the report included the AFL-CIO, Southern Poverty Law Center, Service Employees International Union, National Employment Law Project, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, CDM, and the Global Workers Justice Alliance, among others.

United under the banner of the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, coalition members demanded equal standards for foreign workers employed in the U.S.

“We are not willing to accept an immigration bill that leaves internationally-recruited workers at the mercy of unscrupulous and unregulated employers,” declared the AFL-CIO’s Ana Avendano.

The International Labor Recruitment Working Group’s report contains details on a long list of abuses ranging from fraud to human trafficking, statistics on the employment of guest workers in the U.S., profiles of cheated workers and recommendations for reform.

A full copy of the report can be accessed at: http://fairlaborrecruitment.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/final-e-version-ilrwg-report.pdf

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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