04/25/2006

Food Giant Sued for Mistreatment of Farmworkers

Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys on Friday filed a lawsuit designed to force one of the nation's largest food providers to take responsibility for mistreatment of its workers.

The class action was filed by the Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) on behalf of migrant farmworkers who were underpaid while working in south Georgia for subsidiaries of the food giant Del Monte. Because the company is based in Coral Gables, Florida, the lawsuit, Luna v. Del Monte Fresh Produce (Southeast), Inc., was filed in the U.S. District Court in Miami.

The plaintiffs are Mexican guestworkers and domestic migrant farmworkers who were recruited to work for Del Monte in Georgia's Wheeler and Telfair counties, planting and harvesting vegetables from 2003 through the current season.

Guestworkers are brought into the U.S. from other countries on special visas under the "H-2A program" that permit them to work only for the employer who requests them.

Workers were promised and were entitled to receive the Adverse Effect Wage Rate -- set by the U.S. Department of Labor each year to ensure that foreign workers do not negatively impact the wages paid to other farmworkers. The plaintiffs, indigent farmworkers, left their homes and families and spent considerable sums of money to travel to Georgia to work for Del Monte. They were consistently cheated out of the wages to which they were entitled. The district court has yet to rule on the merits of the workers' wage claims.

"This case is particularly significant because it aims to combat a disturbing trend by large corporate growers importing workers," said IJP director Mary Bauer. "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."

"Most corporate growers rely on their sub-contractors, the undercapitalized contractors whose assets consist of a bus and maybe a piece or two of equipment, to file the H-2A applications," said attorney Greg Schell of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Florida, who is serving as local counsel on the case.

"Del Monte and others turn a blind eye when workers are underpaid and abused, by claiming that the workers are solely the employees of the middlemen," Schell said. "In fact, the workers labor on fields owned by Del Monte, live in housing provided by Del Monte, and are Del Monte's employees in every important respect."

"The folks at Del Monte should be ashamed of themselves," Bauer said. "A Fortune 600 company certainly has enough money to make sure everyone working for them receives the legal wages due them," said Bauer.