Valley Farmworkers Settle with Global Agribusiness

Dec. 21, 2016 WESLACO, TEXAS – Rio Grande Valley migrant farmworkers reached a settlement with agricultural giant Syngenta Seed, Inc. last week. The farmworkers’ complaint, filed by attorneys from Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) and Texas Civil Rights Project, alleged violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA), including unlawful wages and poor housing conditions.

peppers1The defendants in the suit included two farm labor contractors, Cristobal Mendoza Sr. and Cristobal Mendoza Jr., who recruited the workers in and around Mission to travel over 1000 miles to Iowa to detassel corn seed for Syngenta in the summer of 2013.  The complaint was filed in 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas – McAllen Division.

Workers said that after they arrived, they waited two to three weeks before they could start work, forcing them to borrow money for food and basic supplies. They said they were paid far less than they were promised, in some cases less than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. They described housing conditions that violate OSHA standards.

“We were told we would make as much as $5000 each for the season, but I don’t think I even made close to $1000,” said Juan Gutierrez, who made the journey to Iowa with his daughter and two sons, also plaintiffs in the case. “I had to sleep in my truck the entire time we were there. They gave us four a hotel room with only one bed and my children had to take turns sleeping on the dirty floor in there. It was horrible.”

“I thought they would be sending home money each week, but instead I had to send them money for food!” exclaimed Juan’s wife, Leticia Longoria, who decided not to make the trip with her family that season.

“This sort of treatment violates the AWPA, which was passed in 1982 to specifically protect migrant workers,” said Lisa Guerra, lead counsel for the farmworkers and an attorney with TRLA. “Unfortunately agricultural employers and their farm labor contractors still treat farmworkers like it’s the 1950s.”

The AWPA mandates that farm labor contractors comply with the working arrangements made with migrant workers and requires compliance with other federal and state standards for farmworker housing and field sanitation, such as potable water and portable bathrooms. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires that farmworkers get paid at least the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. However, many workers still make less than $7.25 an hour, because piece-rate earnings – a fixed amount per acre, box, barrel or pound – don’t average out to minimum wage. In some cases, workers are asked to pay for their own tools or equipment, which further reduces their pay below the federal requirement.

“Farmworkers are explicitly excluded from many federal employment laws, including those that provide workers in other industries the right to overtime pay, the right to organize and stronger protections from pesticides and hazardous chemicals,” said Guerra.

The 31 farmworkers were also represented by Efren Olivares, Regional Legal Director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“Minimum wage violations are rampant in the Valley, unfortunately,” said Olivares. “And even when workers do get minimum wage, it’s still not enough to support their families,” he said.

Texas has the third largest population of farmworkers in the nation, but they are among the lowest paid nationally. While Texas’ $7.25 minimum wage parallels the federal rate, other states have increased their minimum. In California, for example, the minimum wage is $10 per hour.

For more information, contact:
Lisa Guerra, 202-492-0329; lguerra@trla.org
Nancy Nusser, communications director, 512-374-2764 (o); 410-934-9588 (m); nnusser@trla.org