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'I Worked All Week for Free?': The Horrifying, True Story of $0 Paychecks

Worker exploitation at its worst.

In the annals of degrading, infuriating labor practices, this one may take a prize: Meet the cleaning workers who received … zero-dollar paychecks.

Now, defying alleged deportation threats and protesting those empty paychecks, a handful of striking guest workers from Jamaica are demanding accountability from the boss who hired them, the companies whose buildings they were cleaning, and the Florida politicians like Marco Rubio who took those companies’ cash.

“The promises made by our employer, Mister Clean, they were so enticing that we borrowed money to get here, over $2,000,” striker Dwight Allen told Salon in a recent interview.  But “when we got here … we realized that all of the promises were all false.

“We had to sleep on the floor in overcrowded apartments,” said Allen, while paying their boss rent that sometimes exceeded the low wages and limited hours he provided them. “After getting a paycheck of zero dollars and zero cents” due to rent being deducted, said Allen, “we would still be getting texts from his wife saying that we still have balance of x amount” in remaining rent unpaid. When workers began organizing, he said, “we were threatened in writing from our boss.”

Allen and other guest workers employed by Mister Clean Laundry and Cleaning Services filed a  federal complaint and went on strike Aug. 19. “We were scared,” said striker Shellion Parris, but “we knew in the back of our heads that we need to do this, we have to do this.”

Photos provided to Salon by the National Guestworker Alliance, the group behind the work stoppage, show checks reading “No Dollars and No Cents,” and a page dated June 25 warning guest workers on H-2B visas that, “Any worker who does not show up for your assignment will be immediately removed from Mister Clean Housing and will be reported as AWOL (Absent Without Leave) to ICE (Immigration Custom Enforcement).” The statement, which was in all-caps, continued, “You will then be escorted to pick up your plane ticket and go back to Jamaica. You will have an ICE and Okaloosa County Sheriff Department Escort.” Workers say that warning arrived stapled to their checks. Mister Clean did not respond to a request for comment.

Those are some incendiary allegations. But NGA legal director Jennifer Rosenbaum says they reflect a “pretty standard set of problems that guest workers face.” “If you come forward to confront your boss about illegal workplace conditions,” said Rosenbaum, “there’s going to be egregious threats of immigration enforcement against you.”

Rosenbaum, an adjunct at Tulane Law School, argued that the risk of future such abuse could be mitigated by some worker protections included in the immigration bill passed by the Senate, including allowing guest workers “who are facing serious labor abuse to separate their visa from their abusive employer.” (As  I’ve reported, the Senate bill is a mixed bag for guest worker advocates, expanding programs that have seen abuses while also creating a more labor-friendly alternative.) Since starting their strike, the Jamaican guest workers have framed the alleged abuses they experienced as an object lesson in the need for reform; they’ve pressed their case to politicians including GOP congressman  Steve Southerland,  a potential swing vote on reform who represents a district where the strikers had worked.

The strikers have also been calling on members of Congress to return donations from condo companies whose buildings they were cleaning under contracts with Mister Clean. According to NGA and the nonprofit Public Campaign, those four companies together donated 25 times as much to Republicans as to Democrats, a disparity NGA ties to Republican resistance to reforms. The offices of Rep. Southerland and Sena. Rubio did not respond to Wednesday inquiries.

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