After seven years of legal battling, 66 farmworkers from Mexico’s Colima state have been fully paid for work in orchards and vineyards in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Even though the workers’ claims have been settled, a farm labor contractor and four growers continue to deny allegations the workers made in lawsuits that they were cheated out of pay and subjected to inhumane conditions.
The last of the settlements was reached in April, and two lawsuits in Sacramento federal court were dismissed last month. The final tally: $685,000 paid by the defendants; $491,871 to the workers as wages, penalties and interest, and $193,129 to their attorneys as fees and expenses.
Growers Greene & Hemly in Courtland paid $230,000; Van Ruiten Brothers in Lodi, $90,000; Vino Farms in Lodi, $180,000; and Islands Inc. in Walnut Grove, $45,000. Farm labor contractor SGLC Inc. in Galt paid $140,000.
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The Mexican laborers had come to the Sacramento Valley on temporary work permits, called H-2A visas, arranged by the contractor with the support of the growers.
Cynthia Rice, a senior attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., and lead counsel for the workers, said she and her colleagues are particularly gratified by the outcome because U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. didn’t accept the growers’ argument that the contractor was the sole employer, and because the workers were committed to the protracted litigation long after they returned to their homes deep in Mexico.
“H-2A applications have increased dramatically since 2008, and we hope that the farm labor contractor and grower communities get the message from this that both the workers and their advocates are in this for the long haul; not motivated by personal gain, but to ensure that others won’t be lied to and cheated out of their wages because the employer assumes they will just go back to Mexico and give up,” Rice said in an email.
The dispute dates back to 2007, when local growers had a hard time finding enough workers to tend their crops. Recognizing that a similar situation could arise in the 2008 growing season, Salvador Gonzalez and his father, Julian Gonzalez, principals of SGLC, proposed to growers an application for a permit to recruit in Mexico. On June 10, 2008, the U.S. Department of Labor granted SGLC permission to recruit Mexican workers for harvesting, pruning, general maintenance, and packing pears, grapes, apples, kiwis and cherries until the end of that year.
Grower representatives traveled with the contractors to Colima, a small state that covers some of the mainland and four islands off western Mexico’s central Pacific coast, where they enlisted the aid of local government officials in signing up dozen of workers, both men and women. The recruits were told they would make $100 a day for six months of work, and would be provided with free housing, meals and transportation, according to court papers.
The reality turned out to be drastically different, CRLAF lawyers stated in court papers. Once their clients arrived in Sacramento, Yolo and San Joaquin counties, the lawyers said, the amount of work offered was insufficient, paying nothing near the $388 a week they were to earn under the terms of the H-2A labor certification and written contracts, much less the $100 a day promised during recruitment.
Further, the lawyers wrote, there was no reimbursement for necessary expenses during the first weeks of work, bringing wages well below federal and state minimum. Housing was substandard and filthy; the food was often rancid and neither well-balanced nor nutritious. Plaintiffs were charged for their meals through deductions taken from wages, despite the fact that these charges were not included or otherwise disclosed in their written contracts as required by visa regulations. The workers were not advised of their legal rights to meal or rest periods, and were unaware of those rights. Nor were they permitted to take the breaks and did not receive the legally required compensation for them, the workers’ lawyers said.
“Workers became ill due to the cold conditions of the housing and inadequate food,” Rice said. “They went to members of a local church for help, and those people referred them to our Sacramento staff.”
Within weeks, CRLAF and the private San Francisco law firm Villegas Carrera LLP filed a putative class action against the contractor and growers. The suit sought enforcement of worker protections under the federal temporary visa program; the federal Fair Labor Standards Act; state laws governing labor and housing, as well as those barring unfair competition, misrepresentation and fraud.
The defendants told a different story.
It had been made clear to Colima officials that only experienced farm laborers were wanted, defense lawyers said in court papers. Instead, the lawyers claimed, many of those referred to the contractors “were white-collar workers, such as physicians, bankers and office workers. Had the workers been experienced ... it is more probable than not that they would have earned the higher piece rate, or even over $100 per day, rather than the (minimum) wage rate.”
The defense lawyers said the housing was approved by state inspectors, and the problem with the food arose because of the more refined taste of the workers and not the nutritional value, “as Colima is a wealthier area of Mexico.” The lawyers said 40 hours a week was available at all times and breaks for lunch and to rest were routine, but workers would often hide to avoid being transported to the fields. The ones who did not make the higher wages “were inexperienced ... did not like field work, and did not work diligently,” the lawyers insisted.
The Gonzalezes declared in court papers that they would never again participate in the temporary visa program for farm labor.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189