May 30, 2004 – Maureen Oosten, president of Workers on the Move, said Sunday morning, "There are 93 workers up here, thrilled to be here and doing a good job. Why are we dwelling on the ones who did not work out?"
Her comments were in response to remarks made by Sen. Norman Baptiste in a letter to Cecil Benjamin, commissioner of the V.I. Department of Labor. In his letter, Baptiste said he heard from individuals that Workers on the Move failed to carry out its contractual obligations and that he was perturbed at seeing a video of units showing where they were housed "no phone, no cable, one toilet, two urinals and three face basins to accommodate approximately 16 males."
Oosten, who started a business in April supplying workers from the Virgin Islands to New England, said workers were told before they left the islands that they could be living in dormitories. She said she saw the dormitory in question. She said it was new and freshly painted. She admitted to being somewhat taken aback by the workers' demand for cable TV.
Baptiste concludes his letter suggesting that the Department of Labor send a representative to New England to "ascertain that living and working conditions of participants in the program are not substandard and our people are treated with a modicum of decency and respectability."
Oosten said she understood that Virgin Islanders were U.S. citizens and her goal was to see them all treated fairly. She said she would welcome a representative coming from the Virgin Islands to inspect the conditions. She added, however, "We are no longer affiliated with the Department of Labor and don't claim to be. In the beginning the department facilitated us, but it no longer does and that is perfectly fine."
Many of the workers in the program are ending up in Maine. This writer investigated charges of farmers maintaining deplorable living conditions for migrant workers from Central America harvesting potatoes in Northern Maine in 1985. One of those charged was a Maine State Legislator. Oosten said, "This is absolutely different. This is nothing like that."
Benjamin has mentioned on different occasions that he has not received the information he wants from Oosten concerning guarantees of wages and living conditions.
Oosten said, "I have given him all the information I have about every property we are doing business with."
She said at one site, where a couple workers were dissatisfied, they were given two meals a day, charged a 1.50 for breakfast and $3 for dinner. Their rooms in the dormitory cost $30 a week.
She said that between 15 and 20 workers have chosen to return or have been sent back to the Virgin Islands. She added, "They each know why they were sent back. They were not performing specific tasks for the property or following state regulations."
Baptiste's letter also states, "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."
Oosten commented, "These people signed a document saying they would pay airfare. Workers on the Move paid the airfare up front, but the workers were to pay it back."
She said most of the workers were receiving round-trip tickets to Boston, which were costing Workers on the Move $520. If the workers change the return date and come back earlier, another $100 is added to the ticket cost.
Also added to the Workers on the Move expenses are no shows. Oosten said in four or five cases workers have just not shown up for flights. Workers on the Move was still obligated to pay for the tickets and also for the transportation from Boston to the work site.
Oosten said it is just common business practice to try and recoup those funds.
Oosten hopes to avoid problems in the future with a better screening process. She said many of the workers who are satisfied with conditions and wages are bringing recommendations to her of other Virgin Islanders who would probably succeed in the program.
Oosten said, "There are a lot of great things happening here. People are avoiding unemployment; some have already received raises. We need to be thinking about those people."
Oosten supplied the names of two Maine employers involved in the program. However, Memorial Day weekend is one of the biggest for New England's tourist season and neither could be reached for comment on Sunday.
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