Juan planted sugarcane by hand seven days a week from sunup to sundown, rain or shine, in the blistering Louisiana heat.
If he wanted a break or just a sip of water, he had to hide behind the sugarcane – away from his employers’ view – and hope that the drone buzzing overhead did not record his actions.
Nearby, a sign brazenly announced, “Smile! You’re on camera.”
In exchange for his hard labor, Juan, like thousands of other guest workers who come to the United States, was routinely cheated out of wages and forced into debt.
His employers, who controlled his work visa from his native Mexico, virtually held him captive. If he complained, they retaliated by threatening to deport him or exclude him from other jobs.
Juan’s story illustrates the systematic exploitation of guest workers who come to the United States for temporary jobs under the nation’s flawed and unfair H-2A worker program, which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documented in 2013.
The SPLC recently filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of H-2A workers who, like Juan, have been employed by Arkansas-based Lowry Farms, LLC.
The lawsuit alleges that Lowry – a large farm labor contractor that employs guest workers at sugarcane farms in Louisiana – breached its contract with the workers and violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
“I never imagined the work would be so difficult,” Juan – whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity – recently told the SPLC. “It was a very tough, sad situation.”
Not treated like a guest
When Juan began working for Lowry in August 2018, he was optimistic. He had hoped to earn enough money under the guest worker program – $10.73 per hour, the minimum wage for H-2A workers in Louisiana at that time – to provide for his wife and children back home in Mexico.
But he soon realized that he was not being treated at all like a “guest.” Instead, he was being manipulated and abused.
Under federal laws, Lowry was expected to provide for the guest workers’ welfare by ensuring they had access to water and shade, paying them fair wages and protecting them against fraud and misrepresentation, among other safeguards. It failed on all counts.
“Large and well-established H-2A employers like Lowry have been taking advantage of a visa program that does not protect workers and allows these employers to extract labor without paying the lawful and fair wages the workers were promised,” said SPLC Senior Staff Attorney Anne Janet Hernandez.
‘Working so hard for so little’
Before Juan left Mexico, Lowry told him that it would pay him by the hour.
But, as it has done to so many of its other workers, Lowry failed to keep accurate time records for Juan and the other workers and sought to pay the workers “piece rate” – earnings based on the number of acres of sugarcane planted each day without recording the time worked each week. This resulted in Juan and the other workers being paid less than what was required by their H-2A work contracts and, at times, less than the FLSA minimum wage.
“I was very sad,” Juan said. “The situation was stressful and depressing because of the lack of pay and thinking about how to provide for your family. Working so hard for so little was very upsetting. But our boss kept pushing us to work harder.”
Over 800 H-2A laborers work for Lowry each year. Lowry representatives recruited the workers, who traveled from other cities in Mexico to the state of Monterrey, Mexico, near the Mexican border. Then they boarded a bus that took them directly to Louisiana.
In order to pay for their work visas, hotels, food and transportation to Louisiana, many H-2A workers had to borrow money or take out loans before departing from Mexico in August 2018. Others had to pay fees to recruiters before their names would be placed on a list of potential H-2A workers, also known as a recruitment fee.
In total, Juan spent more than $600 just to enter the United States. When his contract ended with Lowry in October 2018, he was more than $700 in debt.
What’s more, working for Lowry was dehumanizing.
Lowry representatives constantly yelled at and reprimanded him and other guest workers. If they complained about the backbreaking labor or tried to assert their legal rights, Lowry representatives threatened to deny them any other opportunities to work in the United States. When workers asked for legal assistance, Lowry representatives threatened to call immigration authorities or police to report them.
Fearful of police in Mexico, Juan and the other men didn’t know if the police in the United States could be trusted. They had no understanding of U.S. law or workers’ rights. Nor did anyone explain their rights to them.
Threatened and silenced
At the farm, Juan and the other laborers were ordered to be at the job site at 6 a.m. and work until 5 p.m. each day. Sometimes, the day extended beyond 5 p.m., when they were expected to do extra work for which they were not compensated.
When the workday was over, the H-2A workers rode in a van that took them to two trailer homes, where they lived. In one trailer, 35 workers shared only two working toilets and slept in a common room on bunkbeds, surrounded by mosquitoes and spiders. One of them did not even get a bed.
Living under those conditions – in an isolated location 23 miles away from Baton Rouge, Louisiana – was challenging, Juan said.
“You had to get up early to beat everyone to the bathroom and get ready on time,” Juan explained. “We had to travel 40 minutes to get food, because the nearest store sometimes didn’t have adequate food supply.”
Visitors were not allowed. When legal aid representatives went to investigate the farm in August and September 2018, the company retaliated by stealing Juan’s ledger of recorded hours. Lowry also threatened to return the H-2A workers to Mexico if they spoke with legal representatives.
But the threats didn’t end there.
One afternoon, the laborers at the farm became so fed up with working for so little pay – amid such deplorable conditions – that they decided to stop working at 4 p.m.
The owner of the farm then threatened to fire the men, before claiming he would find his gun and shoot them all, Juan said.
‘Treated like slaves’
Roberto – another H-2A worker employed by Lowry whose name has also been changed to protect his identity – said working the sugarcane fields was nothing short of exploitation.
“We were treated like slaves; that’s what made me feel the worst,” he said. “I felt pressured by the overall treatment we were receiving and the amount of work that was demanded of us.”
Roberto didn’t know it, but he and Juan could not change jobs if they were mistreated. Instead, the visa program binds them to their employers. Both Roberto and Juan believed that if they were to leave, the U.S. consulate would deny them future employment authorization under the visa program.
Like Juan, when Roberto left Monterrey, he was excited about the opportunity. He was told that he would be paid hourly, as stated in his contract.
But before he left Mexico, Roberto had to borrow more than $500 to cover the travel costs to Louisiana. Once he arrived, he often worked seven days a week, in scorching heat and torrential downpours, his face and hands caked in mud. He didn’t have a choice, he said.
“We kept working as if it were not raining,” Roberto, said in an interview with the SPLC in May. “We were already drenched in sweat, so it wasn’t much different being drenched in rain. [The farm owner] was a demanding boss. As soon as we started [our jobs], we knew it was going to be really difficult.”
Roberto was also paid by the acre rather than the minimum wage his contract outlined. After working over 60 hours in one week, the payment by the acre scheme resulted in his earning about $4.60 per hour – well below the H-2A minimum wage. When Roberto’s contract ended, he owed over $450 to the family members who had helped him pay for expenses he incurred to work for Lowry.
“I felt duped,” Roberto said of his experience.
‘Stop exploiting people’
The abuses Juan and Roberto suffered are commonplace for H-2A workers – and have been for years. The guest worker system has been described by former U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, who was formerly the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, as “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”
At one point, Juan was so broke while working for Lowry that he was forced to borrow $215 to pay for food. When he and other workers complained about not having enough money, their supervisors on the farms told them they were unable to do anything to help.
Upon their return to Mexico, some workers worried about losing their homes and land due to debt they had incurred while working in Louisiana.
Roberto said he doesn’t “want other immigrants to have the same experience he faced.”
Juan agreed, saying he just wanted Lowry to “stop exploiting people.”
Lead Photo by iStock