Detained Immigrants Win Lawsuit and $17 Million in Back Pay
A class action lawsuit, filed on behalf of people detained at the Tacoma, Washington State detention camp, owned by the GEO Group, demanded that people be paid the state’s minimum wage of $13.69 an hour, instead of the $1 a day they were receiving. As one of those involved put it, “These detained immigrants are just emblematic of other workers in this economy who are in exploitative labour situations.” People detained reported that they worked through the night buffing floors and painting walls and only got chips and candy.
A jury agreed that people in the detention camps are employees and must be paid minimum wage. They provided for $17.3 million in back pay for about 10,000 people. The case also set the minimum wage standard for all those in state detention camps from now on.
Washington State also filed a lawsuit against GEO that secured a similar result. GEO was ordered to turn over $5.9 million to the state. GEO had claimed detainees are not employees and thus the minimum wage did not apply. This is a ploy used by many monopolies, especially those like Uber and Lyft who create positions for “contract” workers. Washington State said GEO was “violating state labour law and enriching itself unjustly.” While the state acts in a similar manner, exempting prisoners at state, county and municipal facilities from the minimum wage law, GEO is federal and private so it is not exempt, based on these cases.
Tacoma is the fourth-largest immigrant detention camp in the country. People there have fought for years against the horrendous conditions, including lack of medical care, minimal food rations, violence and overcrowding. Women at Tacoma recently went on a hunger strike demanding safe conditions given the pandemic. They protested the dangerous conditions they faced including overcrowding, a lack of access to medical care and basic necessities such as soap.
Hunger strikes have occurred over the years at detention camps as the people detained fought for their rights, a reality known to the people of Tacoma. GEO has faced a variety of lawsuits in other states, including a class action suit by current and former detainees at a Colorado facility, also opposing forced labour.
All the detention camps across the country are notorious for their inhumane conditions. Like GEO, people are forced to work, often for $1 a day, to secure funds for personal needs, phone calls and to avoid retaliation from guards. Commonly those detained do the work needed to make the facility run, such as laundry, painting, cleaning and cooking meals. At Tacoma they did virtually all non-security functions. Thus GEO can secure massive profits by essentially using slave labour. A multi-billion dollar company, GEO took more than $165 million in profits in 2021.
Like GEO, many U.S. detention camps are privately run but publicly funded by the government, specifically Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Most people are detained unjustly for months and even years. For GEO, despite the many examples of the rotten conditions repeatedly provided by people in the camps and their lawyers, ICE renewed GEO’s contract for 2015-2025.
The minimum wage law for people detained applies only to Washington State. But these cases will assist now in securing similar wages for all GEO and other privately run detention camps.