October 23, 2001

Tuddenham Gives 'Litigator's Perspective'

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In a lecture titled, “The Failure of Labor Standards Protections of Foreign Guest Workers: A Litigator’s Perspective,” Edward Tuddenham, a 1978 graduate of Harvard Law School, discussed the conditions of workers brought in under current foreign labor programs yesterday.

A lawyer in Austin, Texas, Tuddenham, who was featured in a 16-page Vanity Fair spread last winter, shared personal stories of his experience with immigrant labor force cases. He has spent over 12 years sparring with the Department of Labor over unfair policies regarding what he calls “modern-day slavery” within the U.S.

According to Tuddenham, many issues that employers have stem from an impending labor shortage. He or she will then file a contract with the Department of Labor, which requires the employer to list all the terms of the labor agreement.

These terms must meet minimum standards of wage rates, contract guarantees, housing, and transportation, among others. If they do, the contract is turned over to the State Employment Services, where the employer is obligated to have a 60-day recruitment period of U.S. workers. After this time, if the employer’s labor needs are still unmet, he or she is permitted to recruit employees anywhere in the world.

Intended as a last-resort for companies who could not find enough American workers to meet labor demand, the program has been abused from day-one to get more able-bodied foreign workers from the larger pool of applicants, according to Tuddenham.

Using an anecdote to illustrate his point, Tuddenham recounted a story of how employers discouraged U.S. workers from obtaining jobs at an apple-picking farm in Maryland. The farm’s owners required all potential workers to pass a test in which they had to carry a wet, upright ladder a distance of twenty-four feet. No U.S. workers could pass the test, but under foreign-labor legislation, immigrant workers were not required to pass the test.

Once these workers were hired from other countries, most often Mexico and the Caribbean, they could only obtain a VISA that was employer-specific. This meant that if a worker chose to leave the employer under which they were hired, he or she would be immediately deported. Tuddenham said he felt that little, besides the small amount of money the workers were receiving, separated this situation from indentured servitude.

He even went as far as to compare the conditions to slavery. Citing another example, Tuddenham noted that thousands of Jamaican men are lined up and asked if they are willing to work ten hours a day, seven days a week. They are then asked to remove their shirts so American company representatives can feel their muscles to decide if they are fit to work.

U.S. discrimination laws do not apply when workers are brought in from another country. Tuddenham remarked that “it’s like looking at an auction block in Montego Bay in 1750.”

Tuddenham said he plans to continue working towards reforming policies of American companies as well as the Department of Labor and

Vanity Fair’s feature article on his life and work has been chosen by Robert DeNiro for a possible screen adaptation.

“You have to turn it into fiction for people to pay attention,” said Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, Industrial and Labor Relations, of the movie project.

Archived article by Diane Plavecski