Josh Eidelson in Dissent:
By the time Martha Uvalle’s boss threatened to have her children assaulted, she’d already lowered her expectations. Uvalle, a forty-year-old from Tamalipas, Mexico, has come to Louisiana as a guest worker every year since 2006. “I came to fulfill the American Dream,” Uvalle told me with a laugh in November. Her choice to become a guest worker was “difficult, because you know you’re leaving your children.” But given “the chance to make a little money…you decide the sacrifice is worth it.” Each year, Uvalle worked for two to five months for CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana, supplying shrimp to companies including the retail giant Wal-Mart. “You have the costs here, the costs there, the costs to come here, so you really can’t save any money.” She also took out high-interest loans to pay for the costs of the travel. Still, “it’s more than you can make in Mexico. But it’s not what I was expecting.” (Interviews with Uvalle and other guest workers were conducted in Spanish.)
For years, the hours at CJ’s were long, and the work was hard. Then, in 2011, Mike LeBlanc replaced his father as the head of the company. “That,” said CJ’s worker Ana Rosa Diaz, “was when it started to get out of control.” Workers say they were required to come to work earlier and stay later, sometimes working as many as sixteen to twenty-four hours straight. Management installed security cameras in the plant and also around the company-owned trailers where the workers lived. Workers say management imposed a curfew, threatened to confiscate the keys to their cars, and told them they couldn’t have visitors. Worse, one of the managers repeatedly said, “If you don’t understand that your break is over, I’ll make you understand with this shovel.” Uvalle understood: “He was saying he would beat us.”
The worst day at CJ’s, Uvalle remembered, was “the day of the threat.” It came after LeBlanc heard that a worker had attempted to report him to the police. Workers say they were called into a mandatory meeting where LeBlanc told them that if any of them got him in trouble, he wouldn’t just get them deported forever. He would send armed men to assault their families back in Mexico.