Labour relations south of the border…

EL DORADO, Ark. – Outside the Pine Tree Motel, under the reddish glow of a neon sign, Rubén and 10 other Mexican workers pile into a van at 5:30 a.m. and head to a warehouse an hour away, where they load thousands of pine seedlings into a trailer.

Then it is back in the van for the long trip to the fields, where the day is spent poking holes in the ground and planting thousands of seedlings. It is not until well after dark that they return to the motel, shoulders aching, boots caked with mud. Rubén is one of more than 15,000 workers, most of them Mexican, who come to the United States each year on temporary visas to plant tens of millions of trees. These modern-day Johnny Appleseeds, whose numbers have more than doubled in the last three years, journey north in the hope of earning more than the $5 a day they earn back home. Federal officials say these migrants are often paid far less than they are due because of widespread violations of wage and hour laws.

It is these violations that make Rubén and those like him a concern not just for labor groups and the government but also for President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who, when he meets with President Bush on Feb. 16, is expected to press Mr. Bush to expand the number of these workers allowed in the United States and to provide them more protections.

Traditionally, poor whites have done the work of replanting American forests. In the last 10 years, however, the forestry business, like other industries that depend on unskilled labor, has turned largely to immigrants on temporary visas to do the arduous work.

Although Mexican migrants plant as far north as Maine and Washington State, they are concentrated in the South. They typically replant fields that were clear-cut months earlier and often work for contractors that plant for big corporations.

Back in his motel after work, Rubén, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, said he regularly worked a 70-hour week but usually made less than $300, which works out to about $4.30 an hour, well below the $5.15 federal minimum wage. “Sometimes it just doesn’t seem worth it,” he said. “We work hard, and we’re not getting much.”

Convinced that wage violations are widespread, lawyers are pressing three class-action lawsuits on behalf of thousands of immigrant forestry workers. The suits are directed against Georgia-Pacific, International Paper and Champion, acquired by International Paper last year, corporations that rely on the contractors for tree planting.

The contractors say that the workers exaggerate hours. Michael Economopoulos, executive director of the South Eastern Forestry Contractors Association, said, “There are probably abuses out there, as in any industry, but I don’t think there are wholesale abuses going on.”

Advocates for the workers disagree. “They’re robbing these workers blind,” said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Virginia Justice Center. “The number of people involved and the number of violations are beyond anything I’ve ever seen.”

Labor Department officials, echoing some of the suits’ accusations, said companies often flouted record keeping and wage and overtime laws by counting only the hours workers planted and not those spent loading seedlings and driving to the fields.

The large corporations being sued argue that they are not responsible for the actions of the contractors. “We do not directly employ these seasonal migrant workers,” said Jack Cox, a spokesman for International Paper. “We have contractors who employ these workers.”

Federal rules require that tree planters in the H-2B temporary visa program in Arkansas be paid $8.43 an hour and receive time and a half for every hour worked in a week over 40. But tree planters, called pineros in Spanish, and several foremen here in south-central Arkansas, produced pay records showing that the migrants often make less than $5 an hour, when they include the time it takes to pick up the seedlings and drive to the fields. Even though the workers often work 60, 70, even 80 hours in a week, they said, overtime is hardly ever paid.

“The office often wrote 40 hours, but many times the pineros worked more than 50,” said Miguel Lopez, a foreman for a contractor in Arkansas. Though he praised his current employer, Mr. Lopez said he was convinced that a previous contractor he worked for, F & K Enterprises, underpaid its workers. Mr. Lopez made available wage records from F & K showing that no crew member worked more than 40 hours a week, a virtual impossibility, he said, given the nature of the workday.

Kerry Stanley, an owner of F & K, declined to comment. In documents from the class-action lawsuits, F & K executives said that many workers exaggerated their hours. They also said they told foremen not to work the planters more than 40 hours a week and acknowledged that they never paid overtime.

The planting companies often recruit their workers by sending foremen to Mexico and running radio commercials there. Though recruiters tell workers that they can make big money, the pineros say, the pay falls far short of expectations.

So does the job itself, workers said. Once they reach the field at daybreak, the pineros fill saddlebags with 800 to 1,000 seedlings. They strap the bags, which weigh 40 pounds, to their waists. Using three-foot-long metal poles, they make thin, six-inch holes in the ground. They bend to place the seedling into the hole, making sure the roots are straight. The holes need to be eight feet apart. A proficient worker can plant six or more trees a minute.

Lawyers involved in the class-action suits are seeking millions in back pay from employers they accuse of keeping inaccurate records and violating wage and overtime laws. Though the contractors hire the workers directly, the suits are against the large corporations that often own the forested land. The migrants’ lawyers contend that the corporations are joint employers and should be held responsible for any wage violations and back pay.

“This is one of the clearest cases of joint employment I’ve ever seen,” said Gregory Schell, a lawyer with Florida Legal Services. “The forestry companies often own the land. They send their foresters to the fields to make sure the planting is done right. They tell the foremen what to do.”

The forestry companies deny responsibility. “In all our contracts with these companies,” said Mr. Cox of International Paper, “we have provisions that they have to agree to abide by all applicable labor laws.”

Gregory Guest, a Georgia-Pacific spokesman, said the contractors were the planters’ employers. When the company finds contractors not complying with the law, “we take the appropriate action and that can include terminating the contractor.”

One worker staying at the Pine Tree Motel said he feared he might not clear $1,500 for three months’ work after expenses. Frustrated, he said he might not return next year.

“Every year they promise us it’s going to get better, but it doesn’t,” he said. “But they know that they can always get new people who don’t know what they’re getting into.”