BREAUX BRIDGE — Wal-Mart suspended its relationship with a Breaux Bridge crawfish processor pending an investigation into allegations of forced labor from a group of Hispanic workers, a Wal-Mart spokesman said Monday.
Eight of the workers at CJ’s Seafood in Breaux Bridge also filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said CJ’s Seafood supplied crawfish tail meat to about 30 of Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club stores in Louisiana and other states in the region.
He said Wal-Mart is conducting its own investigation into the complaints in addition to any investigations by federal agencies.
“We have suspended CJ’s Seafood as a supplier, pending the outcome of the investigation,” Lopez said.
Two messages left on an answering machine Monday at CJ’s office in Breaux Bridge were not returned.
The crawfish season is largely over in south Louisiana, so it is difficult to say what impact Wal-Mart’s suspension might have on the company this year.
The eight workers are employed under the federal H-2B guest worker program, a source of temporary foreign labor that is heavily tapped by the state’s seafood processing industry.
CJ’s Seafood workers have been involved with the advocacy group National Guestworker Alliance since last month in a media campaign calling on Wal-Mart to cancel its contract with the crawfish processor and to ensure the safety of guest workers at all Wal-Mart suppliers.
The workers allege that they have been forced to work 24-hour shifts without overtime at CJ’s Seafood, locked in the processing plant and threatened with violence to work faster, according to National Guestworker Alliance.
NGA organizer Jacob Horwitz also alleged that someone with the processing plant threatened the families of Hispanic workers in Mexico if they complained to authorities about work conditions.
Guest workers routinely tolerate poor work environments and long hours, but the alleged threats of violence to families back home spurred the workers at CJ’s Seafood to take action, Horwitz said.
“This year, conditions really crossed the line,” he said.
Lopez said Wal-Mart’s investigation is in the early stages, but a preliminary site visit found some alleged violations of supplier standards, mostly related to record keeping.
He said the temporary suspension of CJ’s Seafood as a supplier would become permanent if the worker’s allegations are substantiated.
“Obviously, allegations of forced labor are serious,” Lopez said.
The status of the EEOC and Department of Labor investigations were not clear on Monday.
Department of Labor spokeswoman Elizabeth Todd confirmed an “open and ongoing” investigation but said the federal agency will not release any information until the investigation is complete.
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