Thai worker case in WA reveals turmoil in use of foreign workers

A case involving a employer in Washington State who hired Thai workers on a temporary visa program puts into sharp relief today’s turmoil in using foreign workers under federally run special visa programs. The employer is being investigated by federal and state officials. And local American workers are suing the employer.
According to Rural Migration News, the state of Washington reached a $230,000 settlement with Los Angeles-based Global Horizons September 22, 2005 over the treatment of 170 H-2A visa Thai workers who picked apples in the state in 2004. Global agreed to reimburse their travel costs and improperly deducted wages.
The H-2A temporary agricultural visa is a nonimmigrant visa which allows foreign nationals to enter into the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature, and for which the employer attests there are not sufficient numbers of American workers.
Per the report,

Thai H-2A workers say that they had to pay $2,000 each in Thailand to get the H-2A contracts, putting up their homes and land as collateral for the cost of getting work visas. According to the Thai workers, only persons with land and other assets that they could pledge to Global were allowed to get H-2A contracts. Once in the US, 24 of the Thai workers abandoned their contracts.

Local workers are suing Global in federal court, alleging that they were not hired when they applied for the jobs that Global filled with Thais.

Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries and the Employment Security Department sent a letter to Global Horizons on December 20, 2005,saying that it was in violation of state laws requiring timely payment of unemployment taxes. Under the September 2005 settlement, Global was to retain an independent third party to investigate and provide reports on the company’s treatment of workers, which it had not done.

The wage or rate of pay must be the same for U.S. workers and H-2A workers. The hourly rate must also be at least as high as the applicable Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), federal or state minimum wage, or the applicable prevailing hourly wage rate, whichever is higher. The AEWR is established every year by the Department of Labor. For 2005, the minimum wage set by DOL for Washington State is $9.03.
The employer must provide workers’ compensation insurance where it is required by state law. Where state law does not require it, the employer must provide equivalent insurance for all workers. Proof of insurance coverage must be provided to the regional administrator before certification is granted.

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