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US college faces forced labour and trafficking lawsuit

TraffickingThe students came to Sioux City in 2019 as part of a work and study program. Photo: iStock

The nine Brazilian and two Chilean students are part of the lawsuit

The nine Brazilian and two Chilean students are part of a second lawsuit brought against the college, recruitment company J&L Staffing, pet food manufacturer Royal Canin, and packing company Tur-Pak, following another made by students last November.

Students were brought to the US in 2019 as part of a J-1 work and study visa exchange program that they believed would offer tuition, housing, food and a paid internship related to their field of study.

Instead they claim they were forced to work jobs unrelated to their studies at Royal Canin and Tur-Pak’s factories for significantly less pay than US employees while money was also deducted from their paychecks for the benefit of the college and recruitment agency.

They also said that staff threatened them with fines and deportation if they tried to take sick days or complained about unsafe work environments and unpaid overtime.

The lawsuit will ask the court to prevent the college and companies from further participation in the J-1 visa program, and for the students to be provided with compensation and the educational opportunities they were promised.

The college’s J-1 program was initially launched in early 2019, with 60 students joining in July and August. In November, it came under investigation after an anonymous complaint was filed, and it was discontinued in March 2020, ostensibly due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

When interviewed about the situation last year, one student said that she just wanted to “get a flight ticket and go back to [her] house”.

“They were just used for their labour”

“People left their family, left their homes, left their jobs back in their home countries with the assumption and the promise that they would be getting a better opportunity here but they were just used for their labour,” Devin Kelly, an associate attorney representing the students recently told local media.

Western Iowa Tech Community College said it “vehemently denies the claims brought forth in the lawsuit”.

“These accusations are completely untrue, sensational, and offensive,” said its president Terry Murrell.

“We look forward to defending the college and its employees in district court and welcome the opportunity refute these malicious allegations.”

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