May 29, 2004 – What many saw as a win-win relationship between V.I. workers and New England employers apparently became a lose-lose situation for some.
The effort began in April to recruit Virgin Islanders to work in New England during its tourist season. Federal legislation had capped the number of visas issued to workers from outside the United States.
Sen. Norman Jn. Baptiste states in a recent letter to Labor Commissioner Cecil R. Benjamin that many fears voiced back in April might have come true. At that time, Benjamin said that the workers needed to be treated like U.S. citizens. (See "Jobs in New England Raise V.I. Hopes, Concerns".)
He had asked Maureen Oosten, president of Workers on the Move, to provide guarantees concerning wages, housing and transportation. He reported two weeks ago that he had still not received an adequate response.
Baptistes letter of May 25 states, "Commissioner, based on information received from two of the individuals in question, it appears that Workers On The Move did not only fail to carry out their contractual obligations, but also refused to allow the dismissed workers due process. I am also perturbed by videotaped images of at least one of the units in which those individuals were housed; no phone, no cable, one toilet, two urinals, and three face basins to accommodate approximately sixteen males."
Baptiste reported that several workers contracted by Workers On The Move were "terminated and immediately sent back to St. Croix."
He added, "Further, these individuals; some of whom were employed for only a day and a half, have received invoices from Workers On The Move seeking reimbursement of airfare."
He concluded his letter, "I am sure you will agree Commissioner, that if indeed these are some of the conditions in which our people were housed, then this is totally unacceptable. Indeed I suggest that your department launch a thorough investigation of the circumstances leading to the termination and subsequent return of those individuals from New England. Virgin Islanders are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. They ought to be treated like any normal American. Nothing less."
In the beginning Oosten was enthusiastic, stating that as many as 300 V.I. workers could be involved in the program. However, two weeks ago when contacted by the Source she said only 85 people from the Virgin Islands were working in New England. She added, "There have been problems as there always are with new endeavors like this."
Prospective employers in New England saw potential problems with hiring workers from the Virgin Islands. New England employers feel they have a more control over a worker who comes from another country. Under the H-2b visa granted temporary foreign workers, they are required to stay with their sponsoring employer or run the risk of being deported. As U.S. citizens, workers from the Virgin Islands face no such consequence if they choose to find a better job, or quit.
A congressman from Massachusetts even visited the Virgin Islands to see if Congress could facilitate the process. A job fair was planned, but due to lack of participation, it was canceled.
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