(Beyond Pesticides, April 18, 2011) Citing civil rights and labor law violations, along with pesticide misuse, a group of 15 Mexican guest workers employed through the H-2A guest worker visa program are suing Newport, TN-based tomato grower Fish Farms. They are charging the company with a series of abuses including spraying pesticides near their trailers, subjecting them to inhumane working conditions, threatening them with firearms, and other violations of civil rights and labor laws.
On behalf of the workers, Southern Migrant Legal Services filed the lawsuit last week in Greeneville. Southern Migrant Legal Services, a Project of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, provides free employment-related legal services to eligible migrant and seasonal agricultural workers in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
The law firm Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym Ltd is representing the farmworkers, where they are seeking compensation for lost wages, emotional distress and other punitive damages as deemed appropriate by the court. The lawsuit claims Fish Farms failed to meet minimum employment standards for the guestworker program. “Instead, believing they had a captive labor force that was Hispanic and Mexican and could not or would not complain or enforce the law, defendants flagrantly violated federal H-2A standards,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit maintains that Fish Farms housed workers in overcrowded and squalid trailers, and failed to provide them with potable water with no clothes washing facilities beside a river nearby. Furthermore, the workers allege that Fish Farms sprayed pesticides in close proximity to their living quarters and in the fields while they were working.
“Labor laws mean nothing if employers can intimidate workers into accepting deplorable working conditions,” said Mel Fowler-Green of Southern Migrant Legal Services. “These workers had the courage to speak out about their treatment, and we believe Fish Farms broke the law when it tried to silence them.”
The plaintiffs complained to the U.S. Department of Labor, and when officials arrived at the farm to investigate, the employers began their retaliation, the lawsuit claims. When investigators arrived, one of the plaintiffs, holding a knife he was using to make a sandwich, came out to see what was going on and employers had him arrested for aggravated assault. They then surrounded the plaintiffs’ trailers, brandishing firearms.
Two weeks later, the workers attempted to record their pesticide exposure on cell phone video cameras. Fish Farms managers responded by raiding the workers’ housing, yelling racial slurs, kicking in the door of one home, and wrenching cell phones from some workers’ hands. Fish Farms then fired the workers massively, detained them for many hours on a bus, and carried out what was, in effect, a private deportation by taking the workers to a bus station and insisting they return to Mexico.
Our food choices have a direct effect on those who grow and harvest what we eat around the world. This is why food labeled organic is the right choice. In addition to serious health questions linked to actual residues of toxic pesticides on the food we eat, our food buying decisions support or reject hazardous agricultural practices, protection of farmworkers and farm families.