Recent Graduates Help Secure Repatriation of Russian Guest Workers

Two recent Law School graduates working for the Equal Justice Center in Austin were able to repatriate six Russian guest workers who had been evicted from their residences and fired from their jobs after asking for higher pay after their wages were cut to below the minimum wage.

The six guest workers, who were between the ages of 19 and 25, were left stranded in Austin and had resorted to panhandling on Mopac and Duval to raise money to return home to Russia.

The students had paid thousands of dollars to come to the United States to work for various employers, including InterExchange, Geovisions, and Lifeline Aquatics of Georgetown. However, once they raised questions about their pay, they were fired and forced to leave their apartment even though the rent was already deducted from their wages, according to the Equal Justice Center.

The guest workers contacted the Equal Justice Center, where they were appointed two lawyers, Kayvon Sabourian, ’10, and Christopher Willett, ’09.

“We received a call from one of the students,” Willett said. “When we got the call, we just did the normal intake of their situation. We saw that based on the info they provided, there were clear violations of employment labor laws.”

After meeting with the guest workers, Sabourian and Willett filed a charge against the guest workers’ employer with the National Labor Relations Board, who sent an agent to conduct an interview with the plaintiffs.  Though the case is still part of an ongoing investigation, the lawyers were able to arrange for the Russians to be sent home to their families after the sponsors changed the workers’ tickets, though they were not required to do so by a court. The National Labor Relations Board has since taken over and is conducting an investigation. The evidence and position statements secured by Willet and Sabourian as representatives of the workers will be used by the Board in their investigation.

“An important thing to note is at the same time we are filing the charge with the [National Labor Relations] Board, which is for illegal termination, the Department of Labor has gotten involved and is also investigating illegal deductions from their pay,” Willett said.

Both Sabourian and Willett worked in the Transnational Worker Rights Clinic at the Law School while they were students, specializing in guest worker cases.  While a student, Sabourian helped represent twenty Indonesian temporary guest workers employed by Schlumberger, an oilfield services company.  After two years of litigation, the case was finally settled without having to go to trial.

“The employment of guest workers is rife with employment law violations, because guest workers are in a vulnerable position due to their sometimes restricted ability to work for other employers, the language barrier, and their unfamiliarity with the employment laws in the United States,” Sabourian said.

Cases like these are extremely common because many workers who come to the U.S. do not know their rights, making it easy for employers to take advantage of their labor.  In dealing with these cases, Sabourian and Willett have garnered enough experience to know not only how to handle the cases themselves, but to ensure their clients receive justice.

“We just have a sense of feeling for guest workers being taken advantage of,” Sabourian said.    “So when we hear about people who come to the U.S. to work temporarily with visas, we do take a closer look at their employment issues. Because the likelihood of them being taken advantage of is higher than the average worker, employees are robbed of the number-one negotiating chip any everyday employee has, which is to say they can work for someone else.”

The Equal Justice Center is an organization that calls for equal rights for low-income workers and families in the workplace and within the justice system, without regard to their immigration status.  Bill Beardall, executive director for the Equal Justice Center, is also director of the Law School’s Transnational Worker Rights Clinic.—Mark Lopez