Community college used recruitment company to lure South American students to factory jobs, lawsuit contends.
A federal lawsuit filed by nearly a dozen South American students, specifically two from Brazil and nine from Chile, in the Northern District of Iowa, names Western Iowa Tech Community College and recruitment company J&L staffing in Sioux City, accusing the two of luring students to the state in 2019 under a work-study based program only to force them into working at a pet food factory in positions unrelated to their fields of study. The suit alleges the students were paid significantly less than their U.S. counterparts and a portion of their earnings was taken out of their checks to be given to the college and agency to continue the scam.
The community college began its J-1 program with sixty students relocating to Iowa in July and August 2019. By that November, the program was under investigation by the U.S. State Department after an anonymous complaint was filed. In January 2020, the college issued a statement saying it “had learned students in the program were unhappy and blamed a failure to clarify expectations and a breakdown in communication for some of the problems.” The students were enrolled in courses but kept separate from the general population, “only taking classes with other Brazilians and Chileans in the J-1 visa program,” the lawsuit alleges.
Civil rights attorney Roxanne Conlin is representing the plaintiffs. She filed the lawsuit under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and is also claiming violations of the Iowa Wage Payment Collections Act.
Conlin said, “It appears to us the documents are very clear what promises were made. It’s also clear that they never had any kind of a program to teach these students robotics or the culinary arts. They worked at a pet food manufacturing company on the line. You cannot coerce or persuade people to go to work by making false promises and that’s what they did here.”
The jobs the student held were at a Royal Canin pet food factory in North Sioux City, South Dakota, and Tur-Pak foods, in Sioux City, that packs food products. Conlin said he clients are seeking to have the institution provide them with an actual education. She’s also asking the court to put a stop to the scam work-study J-1 visa program, and to award the students damages.
“Defendants collectively required plaintiffs to work under conditions that constituted involuntary servitude,” the lawsuit alleges. “Defendants took advantage of the natural isolation that occurred because plaintiffs were immigrants with limited English abilities.”
Andrea Rohlena, the college’s director of marketing, responded, “Western Iowa Tech Community College vehemently denies the claims brought forth in the lawsuit. These accusations are completely untrue, sensational, and offensive. We look forward to defending the college and its employees in district court and welcome the opportunity refute these malicious allegations.”
This isn’t the first time that the community college and program has been the center of litigation as of late. The first was filed in November 2020 on behalf of eight Chilean students alleged they were brought to Iowa “into debt bondage at a Sioux City, Iowa, area food packaging plant and dog food factory by offering them a degree with free tuition, room, and board.”
Eleven students from Brazil and Chile file human trafficking lawsuit against Iowa community college accusing it of luring them under work-study program only to push them into factory jobs making pet food