A Mexican professional is suing three Georgia companies accused of abusing a visa program to import underpaid – and overqualified – manual labor under false pretenses.
Jorge Oswaldo Aquino Martinez was hired to set up production equipment and recommend process improvements at a Georgia auto parts manufacturer, among other tasks. Instead, he says he wound up working twelve-hour overnight shifts in the production line, where he helps install about 400 dashboards into cars each day. His $11-per-hour wage is allegedly less than the compensation earned by U.S. workers performing the same or similar work.
Martinez’s class action complaint filed Aug. 11 in Atlanta federal court claims at least 100 other Mexican engineers and technicians find themselves in a similar situation.
The suit seeks over $5 million in damages to compensate for the Mexican professionals’ “lost compensation … pain and suffering as a result of emotional distress, inconvenience, humiliation, and other indignities.”
Martinez works in Troup County, near the Alabama border. He flew into Atlanta from Mexico last month. He earned a degree from a technical college in Tijuana and had spent five years working in his field in Mexico.
The three defendants in the suit are a Hyundai MOBIS subsidiary registered a Cobb County, and a labor recruiter (SPJ Connect) and staffing agency (Allswell), both of which are based in Coweta County.
Earlier this year, six other Mexican nationals mentioned those same companies in their own accounts of being misled into assembly line work in Georgia, published earlier this month in the AJC.
In response to the lawsuit, a MOBIS spokesman told the AJC via email that the company is “an equal employment opportunity employer. MOBIS denies the allegations contained in the complaint and will vigorously defend the claim.”
“We will be filing a motion to dismiss that lawsuit shortly,” said Randolph Mayer, an attorney with Allswell. “In the first place, an assembly line is an engineering project … this is sophisticated work and high-paying work.”
He noted most migrants are content with the opportunity to earn more than they might be able to earn back home, and that the practice of sourcing auto parts factory workers from Mexico has the backing of local authorities in West Georgia.
“There’s well over 500 Allswell employees who are happy here … 99% of the men that they have brought in are working and happy,” Mayer said. “The mayors of Hogansville and LaGrange are very much in favor. It’s a really great program because good paying jobs are here. [But there are] personnel issues here and there are highly educated, good workers in Mexico. So, it’s a great marriage.”
To legally bring Mexican workers into the U.S., Allswell and the other defendants rely on the Trade NAFTA —or TN — visa, meant to fill high-skilled jobs in the U.S. with Mexican and Canadian professionals. According to a list published by the U.S. Department of State, jobs as engineers and technicians are among the professions covered by the TN visa program. Assembly line work is not.
U.S authorities vet TN visa applications and job offers before migrants travel – and when they first arrive in the country – but experts say there is no oversight of the program once TN workers actually report to work.
The focus of Martinez’s suit are claims of systemic discrimination on the basis of race and national origins, with Mexican workers being paid less for performing the same work as white and U.S. employees, and being forced to work overtime and more hours per week. Martinez states he is required to work 12-hour days at the factory, alternating between working a five-day workweek, and a six-day workweek.
Mayer says there is “no distinction whatsoever” in the treatment of Allswell employees, and that those who work overtime choose to do so.
“Most of these employees want to work the extra hours because you get time and a half. And that’s where the money comes from that you can, say, either build a life here while you’re here or send it back to Mexico.”
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