Silvia Marquez Arreola sobbed yesterday as she recalled being scolded by her boss for walking around too freely near the Eastern Shore seafood plant where she labored last spring as a migrant worker.
Ms. Arreola testified in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that she and 14 other Mexican women who came north for work faced restrictions on their liberty, sub-minimum wages, racial discrimination and poor living conditions at Philip J. Harrington & Son Inc. in Secretary.
"The thing that really bothered me is that although we had been deprived of so many things, they had been asking us to smile, which is impossible," Ms. Arreola said teary-eyed as she testified through a translator before U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg.
Her statement came during the first day of testimony in a civil lawsuit filed last July against Harrington & Son and two officials of Capt'n Carl's Seafood Inc., a North Carolina labor contractor -- that helped bring the women from Mexico to the Eastern Shore.
The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. The women are being represented by the law firm Hogan & Hartson, with help from the Legal Aid Bureau Inc.
Ms. Arreola says she quit her job as a nurse in Mexico and left her two small children with her mother to pursue what she had believed would be a high-paying position at Harrington & Son. What she found instead, she said, was a dreary job as a crab-picker that paid her less than the federally mandated minimum wage of $4.25 an hour.
Philip J. Harrington Jr., president of the 54-year-old family business, has denied the Mexican workers were treated improperly.
Ms. Arreola said the women arrived in the Dorchester County town, five miles east of Cambridge, at 2 a.m. on May 18, 1991, after a four-day bus ride from Mexico. A day later, she testified, they were crowded into small work spaces at the plant and were unable to sit as they worked long hours.
Ms. Arreola said Harrington officials accompanied the women whenever they attempted to leave the plant area during their off-hours.
According to court papers, the women were fired after less than three weeks on the job in retaliation for their contact with attorneys and the state over their alleged failure to receive the minimum wage and overtime pay. The suit contends that the women were left with about $15 each for a 50-hour workweek after the company deducted food and rent from their salaries.
The U.S. Department of Labor found last November that Harrington & Son owed the women $4,070 in unpaid wages.
Three other migrant workers will testify during the trial, according to the ACLU.