Workers Sue Local Growers for Trafficking, Labor Violations

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Jan. 15, 2019                                          

Contact:
Amal Bouhabib, Attorney, Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS); (615) 538-0725; abouhabib@trla.org;
Nancy Nusser, Communications Director, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA); (512) 374-2764; nnusser@trla.org

EARLE, Arkansas (Jan. 15, 2019) – Five South African farmworkers filed a lawsuit in federal court today against local rice, soy, and wheat growers Rob Hood, Mike Hood, and Hood Brothers Farms for labor trafficking, minimum wage law violations, and failure to comply with their employment contracts. One of the workers, who are represented by Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS) and two Little Rock attorneys, also brought a claim of assault and battery against the growers.

Hood Brothers Farms brought the five agricultural equipment operators to the United States through the H-2A “guestworker” program, which allows employers to hire foreign workers if sufficient domestic labor cannot be found. The workers allege that once they arrived, Hood Brothers subjected them to harsh and discriminatory treatment, threatened them with deportation and jail if they did not comply with demands, and forced them into debt in order to compel them to continue working under abusive conditions. When the workers tried to complain about their treatment, they were fired or forced to leave.

“The H-2A program is meant to assist U.S. farmers in getting the labor they need when U.S. workers are not available,” said Amal Bouhabib, an attorney for SMLS. “Unfortunately, some employers see it as an opportunity to mistreat and underpay foreign workers, knowing that most of them will be too afraid to speak up for fear of being fired before they can pay off their debts, or worse, deported.”

“The fear that foreign workers have of being deported or blacklisted cannot be overstated,” she added. “This case is part of a growing trend of employers using threats of immigration consequences to keep workers working under abusive or illegal conditions.”

Represented by Little Rock attorneys Joshua Gillispie and John Burnett, as well as by SMLS, the workers allege that they were induced to accept the jobs at Hood Brothers Farms in part due to the growers’ promise to promptly reimburse them for the cost of airfare from South Africa to Arkansas, for which the workers had to take out loans. However, once they arrived, Hood Brothers Farms refused to reimburse them, telling the workers they needed to prove their “loyalty” first.  The workers further allege that they were subjected to frequent verbal abuse throughout the work day, such as being called “stupid South Africans” and “animals” from a “sh** country” and a “f***ed-up, backwards country.” According to the complaint, the employers monitored the workers when they left the farm, and threatened to have them arrested, deported, and prohibited from returning to the United States on work visas if they did not do as they were told.

When workers approached Rob Hood to discuss his treatment of them, the complaint alleges, he fired two of the workers on the spot and told the remaining three to “keep quiet” if they wanted to keep their jobs. Shortly thereafter, Hood told the remaining workers to immediately leave the premises, threatening to have them arrested. He also forcibly removed one worker from the bath.

The lawsuit maintains that Hood Brothers Farms’ conduct, including withholding the airfare reimbursements, the constant verbal abuse, and the threats of immigration consequences, amounts to labor trafficking under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Filed on January 14, the complaint comes within National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a month dedicated to fighting modern forms of slavery.

###

Southern Migrant Legal Services, a project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) based in Nashville, Tennessee, provides free employment-related legal services to migrant farmworkers who work in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Established in 1970, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. (TRLA) is a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to low-income and disadvantaged clients in a 68-county service area. TRLA’s mission is to promote the dignity, self-sufficiency, safety and stability of low-income Texas residents by providing high-quality legal assistance and related educational services.

Joshua D. Gillispie is a partner at Green & Gillispie, Attorneys at Law, located in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Josh is a proud member of the National Crime Victims Bar Association and he devotes a large amount of his practice to civil litigation on behalf of victims of sexual abuse and other violent crimes.  John L. Burnett is a union lawyer at Lavey and Burnett in Little Rock, Arkansas.

 

 

nancy nusser