06/08/2007

SPLC Files Class Action Demanding Unpaid Wages for Tomato Harvest Guestworkers

 

In an ongoing campaign against exploitation of migrant workers, the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a class action against one of the Southeast's largest employers of foreign guestworkers.

Rosalino Perez-Benites et al. v. Candy Brand LLC et al. was brought on behalf of about 2,700 Mexican migrant workers who harvested and packed tomatoes and performed other agricultural work in Bradley County, Ark., over the past five years.

The lawsuit, filed on June 1 in U.S. District Court in El Dorado, alleges that Candy Brand failed to pay federally mandated overtime wages for work in its packing sheds and the prevailing wage for work in the fields. The company also refused to reimburse workers for the exorbitant travel, visa and other hiring fees they paid to obtain these jobs.

After paying, in some instances, as much as $3,500, many workers were left in debt, even after completing the eight-week harvest season.

"The farmworkers harvesting the vegetables that feed this country deserve to be treated with dignity and respect," said Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, an attorney with the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project who is representing the workers. "Instead, Candy Brand and its business associates are using the H-2A guestworker program to exploit workers by grossly underpaying them and forcing them to work under conditions of indebted servitude."

Candy Brand's refusal to reimburse its guestworkers in their first week of work violates the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), resulting in workers earning substantially less than the minimum wage, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are migrant farmworkers who came to the United States on temporary H-2A visas. Their lawsuit seeks restitution of unpaid wages, an award of money damages and a court order requiring the defendants to comply with federal regulations governing the H-2A program.

The SPLC has also brought class actions seeking unpaid wages and reimbursement of expenses for guestworkers against several forestry companies doing business in the Southeast, a hotel corporation in New Orleans and the food giant Fresh Del Monte Produce.

Assisting SPLC attorneys Benjamin-Gomez and JJ Rosenbaum in the Candy Brands case are local counsel Martin W. Bowen of Little Rock and co-counsel Edward Tuddenham of New York.