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Associated Press

Puerto Ricans Complain Of Abusive Tactics By Recruiting Co.

March 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) - Some Puerto Rican workers claim they have been treated poorly by a recruiting company that brought them to the United States and placed them in jobs at meat processing plants in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere.

Amid dozens of complaints, the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources is reconsidering a special waiver granted to Maxi Staff in 1998 that allows recruitment in the island territory.

"What they're doing is a lot like the days of indentured servitude," Celeste Diaz Ferraro, director of communications for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, told The Sunday Times of Scranton.

Among the complaints: workers are paid less than promised; company-arranged housing is substandard; workers have been fired for calling in sick; and workers are led to believe they are contractually bound to pay off their airfare debt before they can quit.

The Roselle, N.J.-based company denies any wrongdoing and said it provides a service by matching unemployed Puerto Ricans with jobs in the United States.

In addition to its Scranton office, Maxi Staff currently operates offices in Lewistown and in Moorefield, W.Va. Offices in Allentown, Bethlehem, Reading and Harrisonburg, Va., recently closed.

Maxi Staff recruits heavily in Puerto Rico and specializes in finding labor for meat processing plants throughout the United States.

One Maxi Staff worker, Luis Ruiz, said the company lured him to the United States with promises of high pay and quality housing. Instead, he said he was placed in an overcrowded, rundown house in Lewistown, and shared a bedroom with another recruit.

Ruiz, 24, who slaughtered chickens at Empire Kosher in Mifflintown, said he was promised $9.25 an hour, but earned $7 an hour. He said the agency also deducted $125 for part of his airfare to the United States, housing and transportation. For 40 hours of work, he took home $108, he said.

"I got a bad cold from working with the cold water," he told the Sunday Times through an interpreter. "I tried to keep going to work. One day I couldn't. They fired me. ... When I got fired, they told me I had to leave the house right away. I had nowhere to go."

Only six weeks after arriving from Loiza, Puerto Rico, Ruiz said he found himself homeless and struggling to save enough money to return to his country, where his pregnant wife still lived.

"I'm embarrassed to say this, but I cried," he said.

Another Maxi Staff worker, Francisco Jose Lopez, 30, came to Scranton from Puerto Rico last summer and moved into a company house. After two days on the job at Montage Foods, he was laid off.

"They wanted me to go to West Virginia," he says. "I didn't want to go. When I told them I wasn't going, they told me I had to leave the house in 48 hours. I had no place to stay."

Ron Globerman, president of Maxi Staff's parent company, Ronell Industries Inc., said such stories are the exception, not the rule. He said there are far more success stories than complaints and blames the allegations on disgruntled workers and on the difficulty of the work.

Maxi Staff has recruited about 5,000 Puerto Ricans to work in the United States since the company was founded in 1998, Globerman said. The company currently employs about 400.

Critics contend that Maxi Staff packs up and moves to a new location when complaints start piling up.

"When the public outcry became widespread in Bethlehem, Maxi Staff shut its offices," said Delia Rivera Diaz, a member of the Pennsylvania Statewide Latino Coalition.

Globerman said the company only closes offices when business dries up.

If an employee is unhappy, the company will pay to send him or her back to Puerto Rico, he said.

"It doesn't happen often," he said. "We try hard to see to it that we have people brought here who want to work. It's counterproductive to bring people here who do not want to stay."

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