After a decade of peeling shrimp in a Mexican packing plant for as little as $5 a day, Gloria Osuna Osuna seized the chance to come to Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Her U.S. employers, she says, offered her a job picking crab meat that would net her $250 a week after food and lodging expenses. She says she was promised a bed in an air-conditioned house with television and a laundry room.
But when she arrived for work May 18 at Philip J. Harrington & Son Inc., a seafood-packing plant in the little Dorchester County town of Secretary, Ms. Osuna says, found she would share a flea-ridden, one-bedroom house with a dozen Mexican workers.
And she says the pay for her first 50-hour week on the night shift -- after the boss deducted money for food and rent -- was only $15.
"We had to work standing up," Ms. Osuna said in an interview. "They wouldn't let us sit down because, they said, we wouldn't produce because we weren't North Americans."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed suit against Harrington yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on behalf of Ms. Osuna and 14 other Mexican migrant workers.
The suit alleges that Harrington management:
* Held the migrant workers "in virtual house arrest on account of their race and nationality," confiscating their passports, visas and work permits.
* Paid the Mexicans less than the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour that American workers received.
* "Enmeshed [the migrant workers] in a system of peonage that assured their continuing indebtedness."
The suit, handled for the ACLU by volunteers from the law firm Hogan & Hartson with help from Legal Aid Bureau Inc., asks for back wages and unspecified damages.
Philip J. Harrington Jr., president of the packinghouse, denied that the Mexican workers were unfairly treated and said that "about 14 or 15 of them are still here."
"If people weren't treated OK, they all would have left," he said.
Mr.Harrington said the 53-year-old family business had never hired foreign workers before but no longer could find enough American workers to get the job done.
Mr.Harrington said his son,Philip J."Jamie"Harrington lll,a defendant in the suit,runs the plant and supervised the workers involved.
"My son does a damn good job,"Mr. Harrington said.
He referred further questions to his lawyer,Jane A.Canter of Easton,who said through an aide that she could not comment on the suit without having seen it.
The 15 migrant workers,all women from a coastal region of northwestern Mexico,arrived in Secretary after a four-day bus ride from Mexico,Ms.Osuna said.Many left low paying jobs in Mexico,and some left children behind in the care of relatives.
They worked in Secretary until a resident of the town learned of their plight and alerted the ACLU,she said.
The women were fired June 6, after a state labor inspector visited the packinghouse, the suit alleges.
According to the suit, the women left the packinghouse June 7, escorted by two attorneys, after Jamie Harrington agreed to turn their documents over to an FBI agent.
The case is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, said George Loeblein, assistant district director of the department's Wage and Hour Division.
The women are living and working at various places in Maryland, said Harry R. Lewis, a Legal Aid Bureau lawyer, who explained that the Immigration and Naturalization Service granted them six-month work permits and temporary residence pending resolution of the suit.
The migrants came to Maryland under a section of immigration law, known as H2, that allows the farm and seafood industries to import foreign workers. In this case, the Mexicans' six-month work permits allowed them to work only for Harrington, Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Lewis said the H2 program breeds abuses because employers can "blackmail workers with the threat of sending them back home."
Ms. Osuna, 40, and four other plaintiffs -- Teresa de Jesus Ruelas Blanco, 26; her sister, Guadalupe Ruelas Blanco, 24; Adriana Miranda Galaviz, 21; and Maria del Rosario Castro Lopez, 21 -- told their stories in Spanish to a reporter.
All said they came to Maryland to earn dollars for their poor families in Mexico.
Teresa and Guadalupe Ruelas said eight members of their family shared a one-room shack in Mexico. The family was building a new, two-room house but ran out of money before the roof was on. Now the rainy season has begun.
Both women left jobs in shrimp-packing plants to come to Maryland.
"We had never left home, never gone anywhere," Teresa Ruelas said. "Our goal was to send $1,000 home between the two of us to put a roof on the house."
The women said they were recruited by Monica Del Crois, a labor contractor with a Goldsboro, N.C.,
company that Harrington allegedly paid $7,000 to provide Mexican workers. Both Ms. Del Crois and the company, Capt'n Carl's Seafood Inc., are defendants in the suit.