Eleven international students from Brazil and Chile who came to Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) for an exchange program have filed a federal lawsuit alleging the college partnered with local businesses to use them for cheap labor.

The lawsuit filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Iowa claims the public college in Sioux City lied to the students about scholarships and professional opportunities, tricking them into manual labor and human trafficking.

Students participating in WITCC’s two-year J-1 Student Study Program were promised a scholarship covering tuition, room, and meals in addition to an internship in their field of study. Instead, they were forced to work 50 hours a week in two local factories, with the college even “threatening to withhold food or housing if they failed to work.”

Plaintiff Grievances

One of the plaintiffs, Antonio Coutinho, who came to the college to study robotics and automation, said he “worked carrying 50 lb. bags of rice and meat” that was used to make pet food at Royal Canin, a pet food company.

Another plaintiff, Leila Soares, who learned about the program through a Facebook post, thought she would work in a job related to the culinary arts. Instead, she was employed in a food packing and assembly company, completely unrelated to her intended field of study. She slogged through 12-hour shifts six days a week and “was not given proper attire to wear while working in the freezer.” 

The lawsuit demands that the plaintiffs be compensated through “educational opportunities promised to them, compensation for the past and future mental and emotional harm and anguish, money paid during the recruitment process, and expenses incurred to travel to and from the United States.”

WITCC offered the J-1 program for the first time in 2019. By the end of the year, students were suing the college for forcing them to work at a dog food factory under the threat of deportation. Some also accused the college of withholding paychecks and even meals.

Responding to the accusations levied on the college last year, Western Iowa Tech President Terry Murrell said he was “shocked and saddened to learn about the students’ experiences” adding, there was a “breakdown in communication” regarding food and meals.