Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is taking on the GEO Group, the multibillion-dollar corporation that runs the fourth-largest USA detention center, located in Tacoma, the Seattle Times reports.
“Geo has a captive population of vulnerable individuals who can not advocate for themselves and this corporation is profiting on that”, Attorney General Bob Ferguson at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. “For-profit companies can not exploit Washington workers”. But this time, they have a state attorney general ― and the weight and resources that provides ― on their side.
The lawsuit says since at least 2005, GEO has paid thousands of detainee workers $1 per day or, in some instances, snacks and extra food for labor that is necessary to keep the facility operating. Both are violations of the state’s minimum wage law, according to a lawsuit filed today by the state Attorney General’s Office against the company that operates the facility.
Washington’s minimum wage laws do not apply to state jails, but the Attorney General argues in the lawsuit that exceptions to the wage laws do not apply to Geo because it is a private company holding people on civil, not criminal, charges.
“Essentially, they unjustly, illegally made millions of dollars”, Ferguson said of GEO Group.
GEO Group, which Ferguson said is the second-largest private prison provider in the country, has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
GEO Group said it “strongly refutes” Ferguson’s claims, calling them “baseless” and “meritless allegations”.
A spokesman for the GEO Group didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday morning.
Ferguson’s office also said detainees at NWDC have engaged in “multiple hunger strikes” to protest their living conditions. Some said they had worked overnight painting walls or cleaning floors and were paid only in chips and candy.
The statement called detainee labor a “voluntary work program” – a notion Ferguson’s lawsuit does not dispute, although an attorney in his office said some detainees indicated they felt compelled to work.
The attorney general’s office said they were told the $1 per day was typically put in individuals’ commissary account, meaning they could use it to buy items back from GEO.
“The volunteer work program at all federal immigration facilities as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program are set exclusively by the federal government”, the company said in a statement.
That federal lawsuit, which focuses on conditions at the Aurora Detention Center, accuses GEO Group of violating laws meant to combat slavery and forced labor.
Ferguson said the US government’s contract with GEO requires it to follow state laws, such as Washington’s minimum wage law. Rescue workers and untrained volunteers are now racing to find people buried in the rubble from their schools and other buildings, the Guardian reports.
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project executive director Jorge Barón said that he and his staff have met with detainees in the state who have lived in Washington for decades, along with asylum-seekers and people who entered the country as unaccompanied minors. “Because when corporations are able to exploit a particular set of workers, that actually has impacts across the board for all workers across our communities”.