December 5, 2019
GEO Group faces class action suit over $1 a day wages
One of the first articles I ever wrote for the Quixote Center on immigrant detention was about how the GEO Group and CoreCivic, private companies that dominate the “market” for incarcerating immigrants, use a federal voluntary work program as an end around paying real wages for keeping facilities clean. The voluntary work program is based on a 1978 pay rate. Detainees can earn $1 a day doing work, if they choose. However, the “voluntary” work program in GEO Group facilities is not so voluntary. That first article back in March of 2018 was about how GEO Group was getting sued by former detainees for requiring them to work in the facility, cleaning and cooking, for a dollar a day.
This week that suit and related suits involving GEO Group, were bundled as a class action lawsuit potentially allowing hundreds of thousands of current and former detainees to join in a suit against the company for forced labor. From Capital and Main:
On November 26, U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal announced his decision to allow hundreds of thousands of former detainees to join together to pursue back pay and damages when he granted class action status in Raul Novoa v. the GEO Group, dealing a defeat to the private prison firm.
The plaintiffs allege that a so-called voluntary work program in which detainees are paid $1 a day to do janitorial work, prepare meals and do laundry isn’t voluntary at all. Instead, they argue GEO requires detainees to work under the threat of solitary confinement or even criminal prosecution, saving the company millions of dollars in wages it would otherwise have to pay non-detainee workers. They further contend that GEO has a corporate policy of drafting detainees to do additional janitorial work for free, and that the company requires would-be dollar-a-day workers to also work without compensation until they are officially hired into the paid positions.
The lawsuit could lead to further action involving prisons more generally. GEO Group is the largest private prison company in the world! Under or un-paid wages are widely used in prison facilities around the country. This lawsuit could stand as a turning point in the fight against these practices.
Climate roots of migration
The Center for American Progress has an interesting piece on their blog this week about climate change and migration. There is a particular focus on Central America, but the article raises more global issues about how climate migration is defined in relation to internal law on refugees and other displaced peoples. From the article:
Many individuals coming to the United States from Central America are fleeing violence, poverty, and corruption. But climate change is emerging as both a direct and an indirect driver of migration that complicates existing vulnerabilities. Persistent drought, fluctuating temperatures, and unpredictable rainfall have reduced crop yields throughout the Northern Triangle—a region that comprises El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—challenging livelihoods and access to food in agriculturally dependent communities. By denying the reality of climate change and taking a hard-line approach to migration, the Trump administration has shown its unwillingness to address the root causes of migration in the Americas.
Current internal law offers specific protections to people classified as refugees - but this designation does not apply to climate migrants.
The International Organization for Migration, along with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Bank, advocate the explicit use of “climate migrant”—instead of “climate or environmental refugee”—when referring to this migration, as designating someone as a “refugee” has legal ramifications. The use of “migrant” avoids the tricky issues that would arise if the United Nations were to reopen the technical definition of a “refugee,” as set out by the 1951 and 1967 agreements. In today’s climate, such an effort could result in a watered-down definition of what it means to be a refugee rather than a more robust definition appropriate to the global challenges of today and of the years ahead.
Additionally, migration is multicausal, and it is likely that the most vulnerable people would not be able to prove climate and environmental factors as the sole reason migration is necessary—something that could be required if climate change and environmental disasters are incorporated into existing agreements. Climate change outcomes are more abstract than poverty and malnutrition, for example, and economic insecurity is not considered a valid reason to grant someone asylum and refugee protections under current legal frameworks. But the need to protect individuals facing these circumstances is urgent.
We’ve written a bit more on this theme generally here and in relation to Haiti here. We also discussed the issues around definitions and legal statute, profiling Alexander Bett’s use of “survival migration” to encompass the new reality of multi-causal forced migration that extends beyond war and violence.