Field Laborers Sue for Wages

AGRICULTURE

FIELD LABORERS SUE FOR WAGES

Miami Herald, The (FL) - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Author: TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE tfigueras@MiamiHerald.com

Abstract: Field workers filed a class-action lawsuit against a longtime South Miami-Dade farmer, saying the grower failed to pay minimum wage.

BY TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE tfigueras@MiamiHerald.com

Two Haitian field workers, including a grandmother in her 70s, filed a federal lawsuit against a South Miami-Dade farmer Tuesday, alleging they and hundreds of others were paid less than minimum wage for picking beans in recent harvest seasons.

Named in the civil lawsuit is Homestead grower John C. Torrese, owner of T-N-T Farms and Quality Kid Produce.

The bean pickers, Borel Venant, 55, and Claircina Sinois, 71, both residents of Miami, are seeking class-action status for their lawsuit against Torrese and his companies.

Torrese, reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, said he was unaware of the lawsuit and stunned by the allegations.

"This is the first I hear of it," Torrese said. "There hasn't been one person that's come to my front desk to say they weren't paid . If there was a problem, no one came to me to try and straighten it out."

The workers are seeking $1 million in back wages and other damages for any bean picker employed by Torrese during the 2005-2007 harvests.

"It's cheaper for these growers to violate the law and hope they don't get caught," said Greg Schell, attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, which is representing the bean pickers.

The workers were hired through labor contractors to pick rows of beans on Torrese's farms, a common practice in the agricultural industry.

Farmers typically pay a lump sum to the contractors, who in turn hire seasonal workers.

But the arrangement does not shield growers from making sure workers are properly paid and fairly treated, said Schell, who filed a similar lawsuit against two Homestead growers in 1990.

"If the workers aren't getting paid , it's [the growers] neck on the line, too," said Schell.

In 1996, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that growers, not labor contractors, were the real employers of the bean pickers -- and must bear the burden of complying with federal wage and hour laws.

The farms settled with the workers for an undisclosed sum, said Schell.

Torrese relied on labor contractors Best Pickers and One Fast Picking Co. to supply workers.

The principals listed for those firms, who are not defendants in the case, were not reachable for comment.

Among the allegations listed in the lawsuit: Workers were not paid on time, were only partially paid for hours spent in the field and their earnings were not reported to the government.

Schell praised state efforts to crack down on contractors in the South Miami-Dade area -- but said state statutes don't hold the growers liable.

Hence the filing of the lawsuit under the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act.

One common problem, Schell said: Workers are paid by the volume of beans they pick, roughly $3.50 a box. If at the end of the week the total amount picked is less than what the worker would have earned working the hourly minimum wage rate of $6.67, the worker is entitled to the difference -- something most workers are unaware of, and few growers eager to enforce.

"Getting paid by the piece creates a hustle factor," said Schell.

That many of the seasonal and migrant workers are undocumented means relatively few complain about mistreatment, said Schell.

The two workers listed by name in the lawsuit are here legally, he said.

Torrese said he was unaware that his workers may have had a problem with the labor contractors, but said he would not comment further until he looked over the lawsuit. "I can't comment on something I don't know anything about," he said. "I have to look into it."


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