Migrant workers are allegedly protected under a federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. The law maintains that companies taking on migrant workers should: pay workers on time, disclose terms and conditions of employment, provide itemized list of earnings and deductions, keep payroll for three years, and meet federal standards for health and safety in housing and transportation.
However, 18 migrant workers sent to Maine for the blueberry harvest have filed a law suit against a farm labour recruiter, 2 blueberry businesses and several housing providers. They claim that they were told plenty of hours were available for them to work, and they would be given $9 per hour. However, on arrival they were charged for rent which they had been told would be free, and put into overcrowded homes or trailers. The recruiter Paul Carol, along with a couple of other companies, also allegedly stole some of their wages.
They described being transported in overcrowded buses, with two or three people on each seat, and some forced to stand. Their living conditions could sometimes consist of 25-30 people in one trailer, where they would share one bathroom and stove. Some said they were forced to sleep on the floor or in the kitchen, and in some instances were not provided with any toilet paper, beds or mattresses so had to sleep on blankets.
Women were also allegedly expected to sleep in the same beds as men, and if they refused had to find somewhere else to sleep like abandoned cars. The bathrooms would also be in such demand that workers were sometimes forced to relieve themselves in a plastic bag.
The 302-page lawsuit outlines more than 250 violations, and is the biggest Maine has seen in recent years. Recruiter Paul Carol is yet to be reached. He was last federally licensed to perform farm labour contract work in July 2008, however has now been banned.
The 18 workers, consisting of both men and women, seek $204, 969 for statutory damages and lost wages, and an unspecified amount for physical and emotional harm. The problem, is that farm labour contracts are not monitored carefully. Civil cases are also difficult to pursue as the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act prevents attorneys collecting fees in private lawsuits, and if the government file a lawsuit, nothing is paid to the labourers.
Another issue is the status of many workers in terms of immigration, because many are illegal and would therefore be deported if found out to be working. All these factors mean few attorneys take on migrant labour cases. However, employers have a duty to follow codes of conduct, and many cases that have been taken on have been won.
If you believe you have been mistreated in the workplace, contact us now for advice on a claim.