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2003-11-13

Arrested Immigrant Workers File Racketeering Lawsuit Against Wal-Mart

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Workers at Wal-Mart filed a landmark class-action suit against the world’s largest retailer accusing it of violating federal racketeering laws by conspiring with cleaning contractors to cheat immigrant janitors out of wages. The lawyer who filed the suit joins us in our firehouse studios. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript Lawyers filed a class-action suit against Wal-Mart this week saying it violated federal racketeering laws by conspiring with cleaning contractors to cheat immigrant janitors out of wages.

The suit seeks to represent thousands of workers, documented and undocumented, hired by the contractors to clean the stores of the world’s largest retailer. It says the company and its contractors violated RICO, the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, by conspiring not to pay the workers overtime.

The nine named plaintiffs, all from Mexico, were among 250 people arrested Oct. 23 by federal immigration agents during raids at 60 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states. They have been released to await deportation proceedings. Last week, executives at Wal-Mart acknowledged that federal prosecutors had sent a target letter saying the company faced a grand jury investigation over the immigrants.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the claims have no merit and the company will seek to have the lawsuit dismissed. Wal-Mart already faces dozens of lawsuits alleging discrimination and violations of wage and hour rules.

  • James Linsey, the lawyer who filed the class-action suit against Wal-Mart on Monday. Linsey is a partner at the labor law firm Cohen, Weiss and Simon.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: we’re joined by James Lindsey, the lawyer who filed the class action lawsuit against Wal-mart on Monday. Welcome to Democracy Now! explain the suit, please. ?

JAMES LINDSEY: the lawsuit is a federal class-action that we filed in Newark New Jersey, claiming racketeering violations by?Wal-mart and by the cleaning contractors. It’s an unlawful conspiracy to systematically deprive people of the most basic human rights.?This isn’t happening overseas in some sneaker sweatshop in ?Asia. This is happening in our neighborhoods. These are our stores,?these are the people who clean the floors. They work seven days a week, or seven nights a week, 365 days a year. They’re not paid overtime. They’re not provided any medical coverage. One of our people, a diabetic, young guy, 18, 19 years old, doesn’t speak English, sliced his hand with the sharp blade that’s used to strip wax off the?floors, he sliced his hand. He was bleeding. he was told to continue working, which he did. The next morning when he got off work, of course, he didn’t have any worker’s compensation, no medical coverage, he had to go to a hospital and literally beg to be served.?The conditions are absolutely appalling. Wal-mart knows, and that’s the?reason that the federal government conducted raids of 60 Wal-mart stores in 21 states simultaneously on October 23rd. Also on that date, the federal government simultaneously raided Wal-mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and carted out a box of documents and other materials. That material is the material?that’s probably being presented- among that material being?presented to the federal grand jury.?

JUAN GONZALES: the firm has claim, as so many firms have across the country, that these workers are hired through third parties,?through contractors over which they don’t have much control.?

JAMES LINDSEY: and that’s the conspiracy. that’s the unlawful conspiracy. This is the same — this is the same type of racketeering that occurs in traditional RICO situations, the mafia.The mafia don will claim he doesn’t know. It’s all disguised. That’s the reason that the congress passed the racketeering laws to begin with. Not all racketeers have names like Tony Soprano and live in New Jersey.?Some live in Arkansas and they have names like Smith and?Walton. That’s our lawsuit. We’re bringing it on behalf of the individuals, on behalf of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world.?

AMY GOODMAN: They are awaiting deportation, the Mexican workers that were arrested??

JAMES LINDSEY:not only the Mexican workers.I spoke yesterday with individuals — individuals who have been contacted by people?from the Czech republic, and there are pockets of people from?all poor lands that come here to work, seeking opportunities.?there was actually a website that was broadcast in the Czech?language with a picture of uncle Sam pointing, "we need you" to come clean ourstores. there have been pockets of Russian nationals, and so it’s not confined to Mexico. It’s systematically targeted at poor people around the world to come here to clean stores so?that the American public can buy cheap toilet paper. It’s really appalling.?

AMY GOODMAN: can this lawsuit stop the deportations??

JAMES LINDSEY:well, actually we have been in contact — my co-counsel has been in contact with federal officials. I really don’t know anything about criminal law. I’m a labor lawyer in new York?city, but it would seem that these individuals may be material?witnesses in federal criminal proceedings. so, it’s really up to the?government now to make decisions as to whether they’re going to?offer these people some sort of legal status, maybe just temporarily, while the criminal proceeds unfold. of course, these people need to?eat. they need to earn a living. they need to work. so, we’re seeking some kind of temporary working status for these individuals as well.?

JUAN GONZALES: precisely, because if the government were to deport them, it would in essence be deporting potential witnesses in its own case. I would think if they’re serious about prosecuting Wal-mart, they have to make sure that a good number of these workers are allowed to stay in the country.?

JAMES LINDSEY: that’s correct and these people are very?frightened. They don’t speak English. They are very, very?vulnerable. I met with them last Sunday in my office in New York, and among their questions are — for their physical safety. They understand that filing a lawsuit against a large corporation may have?repercussions. The corporation has already lashed out at the lawyers.They’re saying this is just a bunch of lawyers bringing a?lawsuit. What does the company want to do? They want to strip the poorest, weakest people in the world of any legal representation, so that only they will have lawyers in a courtroom.

AMY GOODMAN: how did you get involved with this case JAMES Lindsey??

JAMES LINDSEY: I got involved in the case by talking with the media and also I got a call from Gil Garcia. What happened is on October 23rd these individuals were rounded up by the immigration authorities. they were released on their own recognizance, so they went out seeking legal representation in their immigration matters.?A lawyer in New Jersey, Gilberto Garcia in Hackensack, New Jersey, was contacted by these nine Mexican workers.Of course, Gil speaks spanish, as do I, and when he questioned the workers, or when they told them their story, they told them also about their working?conditions. They told them that they were working seven days a week, that they were working 60, sometimes more hours a week. They were not paid overtime, they were paid in cash. Again it’s all designed to?disguise the racket.?

AMY GOODMAN: subcontracted.?

JAMES LINDSEY:that’s correct.The subcontractors paid them in?cash. No social security protection, of course. No worker’s compensation, no medical coverage. And one of the workers, the diabetic, told Mr Garcia the story about slicing his hand.?Well, Mr Garcia filed the lawsuit in state court in New Jersey.?I received a copy of that lawsuit, and I believed this is?something much bigger, because obviously the federal?government thinks it’s something much bigger. This is not an everyday occurrence that the federal government will act against the largest company in the world and conduct simultaneous raids at 60 locations in 21 states, and also raid corporate offices and convene a federal grand jury to look into something. Obviously, it’s highly unusual. So what we did is we researched the law.We believed that there are federal racketeering violations here. It is a conspiracy. It is unlawful. And what we seek to do is bring this as a federal class action so that it picks up all of the— not only undocumented workers but also the legal immigrants who have been systematically deprived of their legal rights?through this conspiracy.?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, JAMES Lindsey, we want to thank you very much for being with us. JAMES Lindsey is one of the lawyers?representing the immigrants who are now suing Wal-mart in a?class action racketeering suit.?

JAMES LINDSEY: Thank you very much.

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