03/21/2008

Court Ruling: Food Giant Subsidiary Can Be Held Liable for Worker Mistreatment

 

A subsidiary of food giant Fresh Del Monte Produce cannot hide behind a middleman labor contractor to avoid responsibility for the alleged exploitation of farmworkers who plant and harvest its fields, a federal court has ruled.

The order holding Fresh Del Monte Produce Southeast Inc. responsible for any wage violations came in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in April 2006 on behalf of foreign guestworkers and domestic migrant farmworkers who were recruited to work in Georgia's Wheeler and Telfair counties. SPLC has alleged that about 500 field and factory workers in Del Monte's sweet onion operation were badly underpaid for planting, harvesting and packaging onions. Those allegations have not yet been proven.

Agricultural guestworkers are brought into the United States from other countries on special H-2A visas that permit them to work only for the employer who requests them.

"Rather than paying its workers directly, Del Monte contracted with a grossly undercapitalized labor contractor to be the supposed boss of the workers while Del Monte gave all the orders," said Kristi Graunke, an SPLC attorney handling the case.

"This is a common tactic by corporations — leaving somebody without assets holding the bag for their wage violations," she said.

The ruling means that Del Monte Southeast, the actual owner of the farm and a joint employer of the workers, is legally liable for any wage violations that can be proven in court. There has been no final ruling on whether the wage violations occurred. The case could eventually include up to 500 migrant workers.

"This decision is particularly significant because it provides a roadblock to a disturbing trend by large corporate growers that import workers," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "Increasingly, those corporations attempt to evade responsibility for their workers by having middlemen — generally penniless crew leaders — submit the applications for H-2A workers, instead of the wealthy corporations doing so themselves."

Workers were promised and were entitled to receive payment as prescribed by federal regulations, but they contend they were consistently cheated out of the wages due them. The plaintiffs, who are indigent, left their homes and families and spent considerable sums of money to travel to Georgia to work for Del Monte.

The ruling came in Luna v. Del Monte Fresh Produce (Southeast Inc.). SPLC lawyers now must document Del Monte's wage violations.