TROY (TNS) — Cleaning and disinfecting the cells of women who had head lice wasn’t the most disgusting job Dalila Yeend performed while she was detained at the Buffalo Federal Immigration Facility.
It was the all the times she was assigned to dig through garbage cans — filled with the leftovers of meals served to more than 70 other detainees — in search of the occasional missing spork.
For five days a week during the two and a half months Yeend was civilly detained, she was paid $1 per day — funds that could only be used in the facility’s commissary. The money would go fast, she said: Drug store shampoo cost about $5; vending machine snacks ranged from $5 to $10; deodorant cost up to $10; and domestic phone calls had a base fee of $3 per call.
Two years after her release from the detention center, Yeend and another former detainee, Bounnam Phimasone, are alleging labor law violations in their lawsuit against Akima Global Services, the private company that operates the detention facility — which despite its name is located in Batavia, Genesee County — for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“To treat these (detainees) like this and pay them pennies to do this kind of work is bordering on slavery,” Yeend told the Times Union. “It is absolutely inhumane, and these facilities should be ashamed of themselves.”
The lawsuit, filed Thursday by the Worker Justice Center of New York in state Supreme Court in Rensselaer County, argues that under the state Constitution and state labor laws, the plaintiff and other detainees should have been paid at least the state minimum wage for each hour they worked, and that it is unconstitutional for their labor to be exploited by a private company to increase its profits.
“When we look at this particular situation in Batavia, what stands out is that this is a private company that is contracting with the federal government and is making a lot of money off that contract,” said Robert McCreanor, one of the lawyers on the case. “That is in part due to the free labor that they are getting from immigrants in civil detentions that aren’t prisoners serving terms for crimes — they are immigrants who are detained waiting a resolution for a civil immigration matter. It’s a gross violation of their rights.”
Yeend estimated that during her time at the facility, roughly 90 percent of the women who participated in the program were being civilly and not criminally detained.
Akima Global Services did not respond to requests for comment left Thursday with its public relations office and president.
Gloria Martinez, board co-chair of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, said that after the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, the jobs posed risks far out of proportion to the low wages. One detainee at the Buffalo facility, she said, was “paid a dollar a day to clean the infirmary and the living quarters of those who contracted COVID.”
Yeend and Phimasone said they believed other non-detainees at the facility were paid fair rates for the same labor.
“If you’re for-profit and forcing people to work for pennies, it’s pretty disgusting,” Yeend said.
The lawsuit isn’t the first of its kind. Since 2014, there have been numerous civil actions brought against the so-called “Voluntary Work Program” across the U.S., in states from Washington to Georgia. A 2012 study found that private companies can save as much as a quarter of their net profits from such programs.
In 2017, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called on the federal Department of Homeland Services and Congress to investigate these programs, saying they could lead to abuse as detainees have been threatened with punishments such as solitary confinement if they refuse to do the work.