A human trafficking lawsuit brought by 14 international students from Chile against Western Iowa Tech Community College has survived a series of legal challenges and is continuing in federal court.
The school and other defendants are accused of working in concert to entice poor students to leave their homes in Chile and come to Iowa, where they were placed in ‘debt bondage’ working in a processing plant food and a dog food factory.
The Sioux City college reportedly procured visas for Chilean students to enroll in the school’s international education program and then drove them to work in the processing plants. The college misappropriated money from students’ paychecks to reimburse the school for the cost of the program, the lawsuit alleges.
The defendants in the case, all of whom have denied wrongdoing, include the college; several of its employees; Tur-Pak Foods, which operates a food processing plant in Sioux City; Royal Canin USA, which operates a dog food plant in North Sioux City, South Dakota; and J & L Staffing and Recruiting, who reportedly helped place students at the two factories at the school’s request.
The lawsuit, filed in November 2020, recently survived a wide range of legal challenges mounted by the defendants. Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa Leonard T. Strand dismissed racketeering and indentured servitude allegations against the defendants, but dismissed several counts alleging human trafficking , breach of contract, fraud, and, in the case of the school, intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
“WITCC specifically prohibited (students) from seeking other employment without permission, making their work for Tur-Pak or Royal Canin the only means for them to support themselves,” Strand said in its ruling. “The (students) are foreign nationals with varying levels of English proficiency. They all made financial sacrifices to be part of the program, with several of them selling almost everything they owned before joining the program. Thus, they had no obvious alternative.
The students in the case allege they participated in the federal J-1 visa program for students, which gives international students the opportunity to participate in a visitor exchange program while studying at an accredited post-secondary school in the United States. . Generally, exchange students in the J-1 program can accept jobs if their job is school-related or on campus.
In early 2019, according to the lawsuit, the US State Department approved WITCC’s request to host exchange students under the J-1 visa program. Around this time, school officials reportedly entered into negotiations with J&L Staffing and Recruiting to find a way to fund the program.
The lawsuit alleges that WITCC agreed to bring the students to the United States, and J&L agreed to place the students at Tur-Pak and Royal Canin. The details of the agreement provided that the school would obtain visas for the students and house them on campus, while J&L would provide transport between the WITCC student housing complex and the factories.
The arrangement was that Royal Canin and Tur-Pak would pay $15 per hour for student work, but $7.75 per hour would go to the college to offset housing, tuition and fees. students, according to the lawsuit. Students would then end up with the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. J&L allegedly collect fees from the factory to supply workers and also collect fees from students for transportation and employment badges.
According to the lawsuit, the school then entered into an agreement with four Chileans to recruit students from that country, and in March 2019, 25 students were successfully recruited.
Lawsuit: College promised free tuition, room and board
In April 2019, school officials, along with J&L representatives, traveled from Iowa to Chile to meet with recruiters and prospective students there. The Iowa group reportedly told students they could earn a two-year degree in a culinary arts or robotics program and would also be enrolled in an ‘internship experience’ that would improve their chances of continuing. their career, with room, board and tuition provided.
These promises were reportedly put in writing in the form of an “open letter” from the school to its “Brazilian/Chilean friends”. The letter allegedly told students they would be required to work up to 35 hours per week, while attending classes 12 hours per week, but the work would have been billed as an internship program with scholarships – not as a manual labor in processing plants.
In late April, the school sent prospective students letters of acceptance into the program as well as a “job offer letter” to work for J&L. It did not describe the nature or location of the job. , nor the rate of pay, but he would have described it as a “valuable and enriching experience for candidates who wish to gain work experience”.
In June 2019, the school reportedly emailed Chilean students and recruiters stating that while J&L would still help place students in jobs, as an employment agency, J&L n was not authorized to act as a program partner. According to the lawsuit, the email also stated that at no time did the participants mention that the reason for the internships was “lack of workers in the area, even though there is indeed a need for workers.” Also, we cannot call you workers, but intern students, and we cannot use the word salary or salary, but allowances or compensations.
The lawsuit alleges the changes were made to conceal from the State Department that the planned “internship program” amounted to off-campus work in processing plants and thus violated the rules of the J-1 visa program.
‘Culinary arts’ rebranded as processing factory work
The students’ final acceptance letters into the program stated that the students were “not responsible for the cost of your tuition, fees, housing, or supplies” and added that “meals will be provided at the college,” according to the lawsuit. .
Regarding the job, the letter reportedly stated, “You will complete your training in an external environment provided by industries/partners served by our Corporate College, a division of Western Iowa Tech Community College. These companies send their employees to our Corporate College to acquire knowledge and training when and if necessary, and they are ready to participate in this cultural exchange by allowing us to use their facilities and factories.
At the same time, the “culinary arts” program the students had enrolled in was renamed the “food service degree program” which would prepare students for jobs “directly related to the automated food production industries, for the human or animal consumption.
Additionally, the “Robotics Program” the students enrolled in was renamed the “Electro-Mechanical Technician Program,” which would provide training for “an entry-level position” as an industrial mechanic in automated food production industries.
School officials later certified to the State Department that the students’ work would involve “shadowing in three different environments: the local college cafeteria and two business partners consisting of a hotel restaurant and a hospitality industry. food preparation just to observe… Job shadowing will take place at our Corporate College partners.
The school, according to the lawsuit, “knew this was not an accurate description of the work the plaintiffs would perform” and knew that the students would simply work “on a production line, filling a labor shortage in Siouxland area”.
Students complain about 12-hour night shifts
Once the students arrived at WITCC from Chile, according to the lawsuit, they were not given free tuition or free room and board, and were instead routed to the Tur-Pak processing plant. and to the Royal Canin dog food factory.
At these factories, according to the lawsuit, the students were “forced to work as assembly line workers, in positions that required no skills and were not related to the plaintiffs’ fields of study.” Some of the students had to work 12-hour night shifts and then report to class at 8 a.m., according to the lawsuit.
Before the students received their paychecks, withdrawals were made for employee badges, transportation and taxes that are not normally charged to students on J-1 visas, according to the lawsuit.
Other withdrawals were reportedly made but not recorded on student pay stubs, such as the $7.75 per hour allegedly paid to WITCC as payment for tuition, tuition, room, and meals. During the week before starting their jobs, the students reportedly received Walmart or Hy-Vee gift cards for food. Once they started working, the school reportedly stopped providing the cards.
When students complained that the long hours spent in the factory prevented them from attending classes and that the work did not constitute any kind of educational internship, the WITCC allegedly threatened the students with expulsion and denied them food. .
In November 2019, the State Department reportedly opened an investigation into the case and informed the school that the jobs at Tur-Pak and Royal Canin were not “internships” and that the students violated their J visa status. -1. The lawsuit claims WITCC then told the students they should quit their jobs and owe the college $250 a week for room, board, tuition and fees.
After students complained publicly about their treatment, the school reportedly tried to appease them by giving them access to the WITCC pantry and taking them to local churches so they could solicit donations. It was only later that the school agreed to provide students with two meals a day in the school cafeteria as well as a Hy-Vee gift card to cover other food expenses.
In March 2020, the WITCC, still under investigation by the State Department, canceled student visas, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, and paid for students to return to Chile. At the time, the school reportedly allowed its other international students, who were in the United States on a different type of visa, to stay in Sioux City while taking classes virtually.
Although the federal trial is 18 months old, a trial date has not yet been set. The plaintiffs have amended their complaint twice, and the school and other defendants have only recently filed their response to this set of allegations.
The plaintiffs in the case are Chilean citizen Karla O’Nell Norambuena; Natalia Tapia Leiva; Almond González de la Paz; David Silva Moreno; Fernando Vilches Castillo; Claudio Ramos; Alexander Pizarro; Eduardo Antonio Munoz Vargas; Carlyns Sarai Camus Jorquera; Gonzalo Escobar Mirror; Catalina Noemi Rivas Morales; Bairon Morel Gurerra; Diego Cristobal Ahumada Soulodré; and Nestor Acevedo.