06/11/2010

Del Monte Settlement Benefits Migrant Workers

A settlement agreement has been approved in a lawsuit filed by the SPLC on behalf of migrant farmworkers who said they were not paid the wages they were owed for planting, harvesting and packaging vegetables for subsidiaries of Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc.

The confidential settlement with 63 workers was approved by a federal judge on April 15, resolving the 2006 suit. The defendants did not admit liability. Additional details of the agreement cannot be released under terms of the settlement. The SPLC alleged in the suit that the workers were underpaid while working for Del Monte Fresh Produce (Southeast) Inc. (DMSE) in south Georgia from 2003 to 2006.

"This settlement agreement resolves this case to everyone's satisfaction," said Kristi Graunke, an SPLC attorney who worked on the case. "The workers we represented are pleased they can now put this matter behind them."

According to the lawsuit, the workers were consistently underpaid for their work. Many of the plaintiffs, who are indigent, left their homes and families and spent considerable sums of money to travel to Georgia's Wheeler and Telfair counties for work.

Some of the plaintiffs were agricultural guestworkers who were 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. The workers were promised, and entitled to receive under federal law, wage rates set by the U.S. Department of Labor to ensure that foreign workers do not negatively impact the wages of other farmworkers.

Guestworkers, whose visas do not allow them to change jobs, typically have little recourse if they are exploited. During this lawsuit, a federal judge issued a ruling that offers an encouraging precedent for guestworkers in similar cases. That ruling found DMSE could be held responsible for any proven wage violations. It was an important ruling because companies often use labor contractors as middlemen to avoid responsibility for wage violations.

"Tragically, when guestworkers are cheated out of wages, a corporation will say the labor contractor is responsible," Graunke said. "This leaves someone with little or no assets holding the bag for wage violations. This decision can help stop that trend."

The SPLC has filed several successful lawsuits on behalf of exploited guestworkers and has testified before Congress about their plight. The SPLC's 2007 report, Close to Slavery, documented widespread abuses in the nation's guestworker program. The report describes rampant wage violations, recruitment abuses, seizure of identity documents and squalid living conditions.