North Carolina

Exploited foreign restaurant workers slept on cardboard between shifts, NC suit says

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gavel in courtroom Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mexicans employed at three restaurants in North Carolina as temporary foreign workers say they were putting in 14-hour days with no breaks or time off.

They were allegedly paid $320 a week for their labor. Now they’re suing.

“During those first 22 days in which he had no time off, (lead plaintiff Roberto Mata Campos) ran out of clean clothes to wear,” the complaint states. “His shoes were inappropriate for constant kitchen work. He was unable to buy clothing or shoes in the small beach town where he was working.”

Mata Campos filed suit last week in the Eastern District of North Carolina, where he’s asking to represent a group of more than 50 individuals brought to the state between 2016 and 2019 under the H-2B visa program.

The H-2B program allows employers to hire non-immigrant foreign workers on a temporary basis in industries like housekeeping and food service.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the number of H-2B workers has been steadily increasing in the United States since 2013. North Carolina ranks seventh in the country with 5,129 workers in 2018.

The Government Accountability Office, an auditing agency for Congress, issued a report in 2010 exploring instances of fraud and abuse in the H-2B program, finding most H-2B recruiters weren’t actively looking to violate program rules.

But some groups say there is a pattern of abuse and exploitation in the program.

“Studies, lawsuits and investigative reports show that the abuse of H-2B workers at the hands of the employers is systemic,” the AFL-CIO, one of the largest federations of labor unions in the U.S., said in 2018.

According to the complaint filed last week, Mata Campos and his colleagues reportedly worked on a rotating basis at Cancun Mexican Restaurant in Sneads Ferry, Camino Real in Surf City and Taqueria La Tapatia in Wilmington — all of which were managed or owned by defendant Jorge Villasenor.

Representatives from the restaurants and Villasenor did not respond to McClatchy news group’s request for comment on Monday.

Mata Campos said he arrived in North Carolina in May 2018 after a 48-hour bus journey from Mexico.

“Villasenor provided (Mata Campos) with a Camino Real T-shirt and sent him to work,” the suit states. “He worked until about midnight, but stayed at the restaurant until approximately 2:00 a.m. because he had no transportation and no idea where he was supposed to stay.”

He allegedly slept on Villasenor’s couch for several days before being moved into a house with five other men.

“There was only one bed, and plaintiff slept on the floor,” the complaint states.

The suit alleges that Mata Campos was also required to perform a variety of duties outside of food prep, including washing dishes, delivering food, cleaning the bathroom and washing floors and tables.

Though Mata Campos said he eventually negotiated one day off a week, he reportedly had to work from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

“Because Plaintiff did not have his own transportation, if he could not get a ride from a co-worker during his two hours off in the middle of the afternoon, he would lie down on some cardboard on the floor in the back of the restaurant, or outside, and sleep,” the complaint states.

When Mata Campos eventually moved with two co-workers, he said Villasenor tried to trick him into signing a document in English that said he was quitting “and returning to Mexico for family reasons.”

“After some discussion, defendant allowed plaintiff to scan the document with his phone and use Google translate to translate it into Spanish,” the suit states.

Mata Campos said he refused to sign but was still fired four months before the end of his contract. The two men he moved in with were also allegedly fired.

The suit seeks compensatory and monetary damages on behalf of a proposed group of H-2B workers employed by Villasenor in North Carolina.

During a town hall meeting at World Ag Expo in Tulare, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue answers questions about immigration reform and the need for agriculture to have a ready workforce.

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.
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